When it comes to genre references, theatre and TV writer David Farr’s feature debut has exquisite taste. Drawing on the cunning plots and dreamy imagery of Hitchcock and Polanski, The Ones Below is a spicy mix of Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion and Rear Window.
It’s set in modern London, where discreetly wealthy young couple Kate (Clemence Poesy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) live in the top half of a Victorian town house. Downstairs, a more conspicuously well-off couple have just moved in – statuesque Theresa (Laura Birn) and her older, banker husband Jon (David Morrissey). Coincidentally, Theresa also happens to be pregnant,and Kate is envious to learn that Jon is so wealthy that he plans to take early retirement in just five years’ time – a far cry from Justin, who spends most of his waking life sitting in front of a desktop publishing package.
Relations between the two couples following a painfully awkward dinner party and a nasty incident involving a pair of shoes and a cat. A few months later, Kate gives birth to a healthy baby boy, though the new arrival causes traumas of its own – the bairn screams constantly, and Kate starts to fray at the edges from the lack of sleep. Then weird things start to happen in and around the flat: car alarms go off, a bath overflows despite nobody being around to turn on the taps. Kate begins to suspect that the couple downstairs are behind it all – but is she paranoid or are the people downstairs really out to get her?
The premise of two very different couples effectively sharing the same space is ripe for a claustrophobic psychodrama about the strains of modern parenting; some of the film’s most effective moments are the ones that explore Justin and Kate’s ambivalence towards parenthood. Sadly, The Ones Below entirely lacks the shadowy, taboo-busting power of The Babadook – a superbly shot and acted film about the dark side of parenthood.
By contrast, The Ones Below is filmed and designed with the flat, sunny look of an Ikea commercial, while the performances fail to impart much in the way of emotional depth. David Morrisey, normally an excellent actor, appears to have based his character on an Easter Island statue – he glowers out at us from beneath his sternly furrowed brow, often while wearing orange polo shirts and turquoise sweaters.
Then again, all four leads are short-changed by a plot which fails to hold much psychological weight. If the alarm on your neighbour’s tank-like car went off night after night, causing your baby to squeal in anguish, wouldn’t you go downstairs and tell him to sort the damn thing out? Justin doesn’t, which is a small yet pertinent example of the small details in The Ones Below that don’t quite ring true. (Justin also appears to be terrible at typography, which makes us wonder how he and Kate can afford a flat in what appears to be a particularly leafy part of London.)
The Ones Below’s premise may nod to Polanski, but it more closely resembles the mid-budget domestic thrillers of the late 80s and 1990s in its execution – those passable yet largely disposable genre movie that were a cinema staple after the success of Fatal Attraction in 1987. It’s a cautionary reminder of how deceptively difficult it is to make a truly great thriller, particularly one with such a tiny group of characters and a handful of locations; every bit of casting has to be just right, every scene honed with a watchmaker’s precision. The Ones Below borrows from the best, but it fails to make those constituent parts cohere into a memorable whole.
The Ones Below was playing at Glasgow Film Festival.