Time Trial


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Time Trial
"There's a savage kind of beauty in Pretsell's portrait of desperation and despair."

We open in darkness. David Millar's face emerges from shadow, lean and tense, every muscle clenched. He's talking about what being a top cyclist has meant to him, and it's immediately plain that there's something different going on here from what we see in most sporting documentaries. This is less a story of one man's career than it is a journey into the heart of darkness, the obsession that lies at the core of every sport. Wherever circumstances demand that competitors give everything they've got in pursuit of victory, there is a risk that people will be hollowed out, left empty of everything except the will to win - and, when winning eventually becomes impossible, left with nothing at all.

This is a film about mortality. It's visually immersive. We snap out of that darkness into a world of blue sky and grey tarmac, everything else a blur as we go thundering forward. Director Finlay Pretsell quickly creates the impression that moving at this speed is normal, the natural way to be, so that pedestrians, bystanders and slower vehicles, even the mountain slopes and the deep gorges between them, feel like something other, not quite real. To live at this speed is to be perpetually apart from the rest of the world, conversing only with those who can keep the pace. So when a man finds himself struggling to keep up, feeling the weight of age, we can understand the terror he feels.

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"I'm doing everything right," David protests, making the same effort, not getting the same results. Once this panic led him to stray from the path and take performance-enhancing drugs. That's behind him now. He has something of a reputation in the sport for talking about it, counselling others against making the same mistake. But the future is looking bleaker than ever. He's the only British rider ever to have won all the different jerseys on the Tour de France, but now he might not even make the Tour team. It doesn't seem fair. He's done it 12 times, he explains. It ought to be 13. He just needs one more. He'll be okay if he can just have one more.

We follow him on a long cross country time trial as he pushes himself to the brink of endurance, determined to show that he can still make the grade. The weather gets darker, the sky heavier. Nature itself seems to be working against him. All the beauty he might once have found in the landscape has gone - now all he can think about is getting to the end. One more time. One more.

There's a savage kind of beauty in Pretsell's portrait of desperation and despair. Heightened use of ambient sound envelopes the viewer in the moment. In one sequence, rain streaking across a lens makes the route ahead, winding swiftly between other bikes and cars, replete with danger, the physical suddenly rushing up to meet the existential. David has no time for cyclists who crash. It generally happens because they've joined a part of the pack where they don't belong, he says. They're not good enough to be part of the elite. Is he capable of thinking of himself - or existing - any other way?

Building to a powerful conclusion, this is a documentary with real force, a compelling personal story and a dizzying visual experience that you won't easily forget.

Reviewed on: 20 Jun 2018
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A documentary following David Millar in his final season in the saddle.
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Director: Finlay Pretsell

Starring: Thomas Dekker, David Millar

Year: 2017

Runtime: 82 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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