Motherhood is supposed to be an exuberant time; one filled with expectation, apprehension and, above all, joy. Throw in the loneliness of London and the new neighbours who have moved into the downstairs flat and it will fast become something else entirely. Following his recent adaptation of The Night Manager, David Farr not only writes his own screenplay for The Ones Below but makes his directorial debut and no stranger to suspense, he makes a fairly entertaining job of it.
Kate (Cleménce Poésy) and Justin Pollard (Stephen Campbell Moore) met at University and – after (some) reluctance on Kate’s part – are expecting their first child. In fact, Billy is the first character we meet, at least in ultrasound form accompanied by Adem Ilhan’s haunting lullaby. Okay, so it may be a bit of a sledgehammer in terms of freeze-framed set-up and foreboding but Farr has our disconcerted attention.
The Pollards have a substantial income made apparent by their Saab™ and home in North London, everything is very drab and beige in their world, well, until the bright green AstroTurf lawn is laid in the garden below. Their new neighbours arrive; banker John Baker (David Morrissey) and his pretty pregnant Finnish wife Theresa (Laura Birn). Almost immediately, the petite blonde child-bearers bond and are fast becoming firm friends, quite an achievement for the quiet, introverted Kate. However, following an intimate and incredibly awkward dinner, tragedy strikes and relationships unravel.
Taking his visual cues from the likes of Polanski and Hitchcock – there’s even a Haneke starkness to the set design – first-time director Farr creates an interesting film, particularly assisted by the nifty camerawork courtesy of cinematographer, Ed Rutherford. It’s not a wholly original story, and we’re still delivered a female focussed narrative about a gender-specific biology via a male amid very privileged and homogenised surroundings but the differences between the couples and their environments are fascinating. It does try and make a quirk out of people who remove their shoes before walking into a house (hygiene, people!), there’s a brief fumbling over a spare key and why indeed would a wealthy banker move into a one-bedroomed flat? Yet, all-in-all, there is much to admire, not least the detachment and isolation a city scape can project.
The Ones Below covers a lot of hard-hitting themes and subjects, from maternal instinct and domesticity, to the very real issue of postnatal depression and the anxieties surrounding parenthood. Poésy does a particularly convincing job at giving Kate scope beyond the vanilla victim she could have become; her character and Birn’s Theresa are inextricably linked not only by hair colour and circumstance but entwined as if facets of the same person. Any similarity diminishes as the film progresses, culminating in a real distinction between the contrived and the verisimilar. For the most part, it works efficiently as a drama/psychological thriller, even a bloodless horror. That said, nothing quite prepares you for the devastating conclusion and creepy final scene. The grass is definitely not always greener and it appears to be, it’s a trick of lighting or all for show and probably rotten beneath the surface.