‘Timestalker’ review: Alice Lowe brings Monty Python mayhem to period romance

3 months ago

Time travel and love collide with bloody slapstick in Timestalker, Alice Lowe’s much-anticipated follow-up to Prevenge. Where her last movie starred the writer/director as a pregnant mother who turns serial killer at the urging of her very demanding fetus, her latest comedy leans away from horror and into romance. But it’s still damn twisted — and deliciously so!

Lowe, who wrote, directed, and stars in Timestalker, begins this tale of love, obsession, and recurring decapitations in 1688. There, Agnes (Lowe) is an impoverished spinner. When she’s not making vibrant balls of pink yarn or scolding her surly Scottie dog, George, she’s ogling a hot, heretic preacher (Aneurin Barnard). In this start of the age of aristocracy, his sacrilegious antics lead him to a public execution. But before his pretty head might be harmed, Agnes haphazardly intervenes, saving his life — but losing her own.

This isn’t a spoiler. It’s the very first sequence of Timestalker, so named because Agnes will awaken in another life, restored and ready to chase romance with this man once more. Each age offers her a new setting, but the same band of players and the chance to make the same bad choices. So begins a madcap movie that questions an increasingly troubling tenant of old-school rom-coms: stalking.

Before the film’s world premiere at SXSW, Lowe said in her curtain speech that Timerstalker is a vanity project because she wrote, directed, and stars in it. But it’s hard to imagine others describing it as such. While she is the funky film’s leading lady, Agnes is not some glamorous, noble, or remotely heroic character. Instead, she’s a selfish clown, so focused on her determination to win her one true love that she’s pretty horrid to everyone else. (Kenneth Branagh could never.)

Lowe’s movie recognizes Agnes’s absurdity with a biting sense of humor. In 1793, she is an aristocrat with all one might imagine a woman of the age could desire: a wealthy husband (a growling Nick Frost), a grand house, a loyal servant (a slyly hilarious Tanya Reynolds), and a polished wooden dildo. But when she is sad, she calls for her baby, only to be quickly disgusted, caterwauling that the infant clearly hates her.

Agnes displays this same self-obsessiveness in multiple eras, including 1980s New York City, where her heretic is a New Romantic rock star in the vein of Adam Ant. Her sharp tongue and indulgent eye rolls are outrageously funny, as she is essentially a parody of rom-com heroines whose focus is insufferably on the idea of their one true love. Meanwhile, her love interest, Alex, is an unapologetic shit, stabbing not only his would-be lover in the back but also the hallowed concept of “the one” as a dream guy.

Their comeuppance for this deeply toxic dynamic is violence as shocking as it is funny. At the film’s world premiere, audiences with no idea what they were in for let out gasps of horror and squeals of alarm as Lowe’s romantic comedy pitched itself unapologetically off the rails into the macabre. While some will be turned off with her manic bloodlust, fans of Prevenge will cheer.

Alice Lowe and Aneurin Barnard are a match made in hell.

Leaping hundreds of years from one scene to the next, Lowe makes marvelous use of costumes and setting to loosely parody iconic eras of romance. Pratfalls of muck and violence make these eras less glossy than period romances would ever dare. In the ’80s, Lowe’s physical comedy stretches into the era’s obsession with aerobics and big permed hair. But she’s no Working Girl with career goals and dashing men chasing her. She’s a sulking stalker with a twisted sense of devotion. And Lowe manages to make this unnerving while giggle-inducing — chiefly because of how callous yet incompetent her heroine is in this quest for Alex.

For his part, Barnard smoothly suits the sexy priest role at the start. His swagger translates well to a reckless highwayman and an arrogant musician. All the while, he dares to dig into the characters’ depravities, urging the audience to understand Agnes’ initial attraction to him while marveling over her prolonged affection, as he’s repeatedly outed as 1) not that into her, and 2) a wanker. Essentially, these two are kinetic and chaotic onscreen, turning the tables on rom-com expectations. This isn’t a couple for which you root for their coming together. Instead, you root for heads to roll — one in particular.

Jumping across time with Agnes and Alex are also her gal pal, Meg (Tanya Reynolds); a surly servant (Interview with a Vampire’s Jacob Anderson); and an ornery oaf (Frost). Reynolds’ job is to ground the story with pleas for Agnes to get her shit together, essentially acting as the angel on the protagonist’s shoulder. Anderson, on the other hand, is a devil, pushing for a choice that might bring “revolution,” a recurring buzz word whether he’s an artist, butler, or talent handler. Within his tempting advice, there’s a sneaking disinterest in Agnes’s future. Yet it’s exciting to watch Anderson toy with the others, as he carries with him a mix of barely repressed ire and profound boredom. It’s easy to speculate his huffing character doesn’t want change as much as he just want these cycles to end.

Then there’s Nick Frost, who is growling and gross, whether a lord of a grand estate or a wannabe beau with criminally bad ’80s hair. (Anderson, on the other hand, is downright swoon-worthy in New Romantic gear and a Jheri curl.) To say much more about Frost’s part would be to give too much away. Suffice to say, the comedic actor beloved for his dopey sidekicks in the Cornetto trilogy chucks away charm to relish being a rotten baddie here.

With eras tied together not only with cast but also with a recurring violent pink, Timestalker has a playful sense of humor in its traveling across time. Death is a punchline, and love is the setup. Lowe is ruthless and riveting as she annihilates the frothy joys of romantic comedies. Yet I pined for a bit more when it came to the film’s plotting. The zipping back and forth is exciting. But at some point, the plot feels so planted in the ’80s that jumps back rattle rather than invigorate.

This pacing issue aside, Timestalker is a demented romp through romance with a sense of humor so sharp that of course there’s gushing blood.

Timestalker was reviewed out of SXSW 2024.…Read more by Kristy Puchko


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