I’d like to take a page out of the page of staff writer Richelle Charkot’s book – The Ones Below is another film about child bearing gone wrong. Motherhood & pregnancy are rich territory and director David Farr takes it beyond the stage of pregnancy in this quiet thriller. Kate (Clémence Poésy) & Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) move into and renovate an idyllic one-up-one-down home in London. A pregnant Kate soon encounters the new neighbours Therese (Laura Birn) & Jon (David Morrissey). Kate discovers that Therese is also pregnant and the two, naturally, strike up a friendship. Obviously, things are not as rosy as they seem.
The art direction in The Ones Below is stunning but frequently dips into the profoundly obvious. At the beginning of the film we see that Kate & Justin have had landscapers plow the messy tangle of the back garden and install a beautiful and hyper–saturated courtyard. There, Kate spends a lot of time observing Therese. The garden metaphor coupled with these expectant mothers leaves us with little wiggle room in terms of interpretation. The film is almost too expertly structured – as though Farr is holding our hands and guiding us through the surface of the narrative and pointing things out.
The action occurs almost entirely in two apartments e so sterile they look staged. These characters have no place in their home – and hover over things as though they don’t own them. It is only in moments when life intrudes to mess things up that a tiny bit of the horror to come peeks over the edge. In the last moments of the final act we understand precisely what has been going on but that is, unfortunately, over explained and seems ridiculously out of place in a film that had so far demonstrated an incredible amount of restraint.
The weakest aspect of The Ones Below is that it does not take the time to delve into the ethos of Kate & Therese as women expecting children. So obsessed is this film with maintaining its cold manner that it completely misses the point of its subject matter and instead dwells in the shallow waters of what lies below in this upper-middle class life. Whereas films like Rosemary’s Baby manage to envisage a dichotomy between Rosemary’s privileged existence and what it means to be an expectant mother in the face of distrust and paranoia – The Ones Below simply skirts the edges and Kate’s paranoia is not rooted in her new status as mother but inferred as a result of a family history of mental illness. The trouble is even that aspect of the narrative is left out in the cold. The film stagnants on the edge of emotion while apparently dealing with emotional subject matter – any emotion that does come forth appears as the unreasonable ramblings of the grief stricken.
The one stand-out of The Ones Below is Lauren Birn as Therese. Her performance shows us quiet menace even before it is revealed that something is not right. Therese smiles too easily; her hair is too blond, her husband too old. Birn carries a tautness in her face from the moment she appears on screen. She conveys a rabid desperation that can only be seen if we look hard enough.
The Ones Below is not a bad film but it remains to be seen if David Farr can put aside his desire to guide us through his films and let the audience be. It’s exciting to see a film like this – a classic thriller, nearly Hitchcockian in its vision but Hitch’s films were not emotionless wastelands. They were filled with real characters thrown into incredible situations where the set-design and cinematography told us what everything was about without knocking us over the head with it. This is Farr’s first feature as a director and I’m excited to see what he has to offer in the future. Let’s just hope he leaves the explain-stick at home.
Lex Corbett (@trazism) is a freelance writer & editor of Eye Myth Film. She lives in Toronto, Canada.