Viv Wilby finds this thriller about north London neighbours overstuffed with allusions and ultimately underwhelming
Sometimes new directors want to show you how much they know about films. David Farr, who has written and directed new release The Ones Below, has a background in theatre, and co-wrote the 2011 film Hanna with Joe Wright, as well as adapting John Le Carré’s The Night Manager, currently on BBC1.
Farr’s film debut has garnered comparisons with Polanski. Two couples, London flats, the anxieties and emotions stirred by pregnancy, paranoia: parallels with Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and even the recent drama Carnage draw themselves. But there’s more: a moment from The Hand That Rocked The Cradle, a nod to Gaslight there, and all with a healthy dose of Hitchcock thrown in for good measure – there are some overt nods to Rear Window and Vertigo in particular.
Ruth Rendell could have written this story: an enviably middle class milieu is warped with suspicion and obsession. Kate and Justin (Clémence Poésy and Stephen Campbell Moore) are an attractive media-ey couple looking forward to the birth of their first child. They occupy the top half of a handsome north London townhouse, all sash windows and stripped wooden floors and Le Creuset cookware. The empty garden flat below them is taken and smartened up by another couple, Theresa and Jon (Laura Birn and David Morrissey) who announce their presence by leaving their shoes outside their front door and transforming the overgrown garden into a small oasis of almost unnatural neatness. The fact that Theresa, like Kate, is also halfway through her first pregnancy offers an obvious reason for the neighbours to bond, although any similarities between them are soon exposed as superficial. Whereas Kate is watchful and prone to reticence, Theresa is vivacious and uninhibited. Where Justin is laidback and good natured, Jon, a banker and somewhat older than the others, is stuffy and uptight and looks like he’s going to lose his temper at any minute.
Kate and Justin have delayed having children to focus on their careers but conceived quickly, and Kate in particular has mixed feelings about her impending motherhood. Theresa and Jon have endured seven years of infertility and children are important. Jon divorced his first wife because she was unable to have children, Theresa reveals. “That’s why he chose me.” She seems content to be supported by her wealthy husband, spending her days swimming, lunching and sunbathing.
But there’s a hasty and uncomfortable lurch into melodrama after Kate and Justin throw a dinner party for their new neighbours that goes disastrously wrong. The rest of the film probes the fallout from this incident, the suspicion and dread it provokes and mashes it up the guilt and anxiety of new motherhood. There’s some good old fashioned audience teasing as to the true intentions of the neighbours downstairs and Poésy does a passable impression of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It all leads up to a bleak and sickening climax, further explained by a ludicrous coda.
I don’t mind cheesy thrillers if they work, but this one never seems to quite find its feet. It fails to sustain tension, there are no memorable set pieces and the odd good idea – there’s effective use of a baby monitor at one point – are thrown away too quickly. A subplot about Kate’s troubled family history is underdeveloped and characterisation is weak and the central relationships unconvincing. David Morrissey, a good and interesting actor, is never anything more than a glowering, menacing presence here and, as Theresa, Laura Birn transitions from hippy-ish free spirit to fragile abuse victim to dead-eyed Stepford wife as the moment demands. Her performance is often campy and over-the-top.
It’s small scale and low budget sometimes shows through. For a London film, it’s curiously empty: the two couples apparently have Islington entirely to themselves. At one point, Kate and Justin sit alone in a cavernous and entirely vacant A&E waiting area. Attention to detail can be sloppy: Kate trudges about in a long coat and scarf, while Theresa sunbathes in shorts and bikini top. These are petty points, but there’s little else going on to draw you in. I did like the art direction: the contrast between the very contemporary muddy blues, greys and greens of Kate and Justin’s flat and the pristine white and yellow and 1950s touches in Jon and Theresa’s space is well done.
At a shade under 90 minutes the film doesn’t outstay its welcome, at least, but you’d be better off rewatching Rosemary’s Baby.
The Ones Below opens in cinemas today