Today: June 21, 2024

The Ones Below

You don’t see many thrillers days. They tend to be played out on either a much grander scale via the saturated market place of the superhero genre or on the smaller, more intimate, character building medium of television. The Ones Below though is a full-blown psychological thriller which utilises and plays on the troupes of the genre that populated 1990s as filmmakers sought to further Hitchcock’s groundbreaking works.

It means that as the The Ones Below unfolds you can tick off the films that have clearly influenced it. The story sees couple Kate (Clémence Poésy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) live in a quaint little London flat with their first child on the way. One day they meet new neighbours who live in the flat beneath them and are also expecting a baby. Bubbly Theresa (Laura Birn) and stoic Jon (David Morrissey). At dinner one night Jon gives off a controlling, Sleeping With The Enemy vibe but before it can go full-on adjusting hand towels tragedy strikes.

From then on we’re into the realms of Malice as neighbours clash. Soon Kate begins obsessing over her neighbours. Watching them in their almost too perfect garden. It’s the kind of garden David Lynch would conjure before taking you beneath the surface to find all manner of things rotting and putrid. And all the while Curtis Hanson’s The Hand That Rocks The Cradle looms large. This is essentially an almost theatrical, thoroughly British version of that story. The sense of the mother’s struggle to look after her child entering the realms of paranoia as she assumes someone is trying to sabotage her and take her child.

Writer director David Farr, who wrote and produced much of this year’s excellent TV show The Night Manager, keeps things wonderfully paced. The film unfolds like a page turner of a book. Admittedly it’s the kind of book you’d pick up in an airport and read in no time at all but it keeps you hooked. More importantly it keeps you guessing as to what is really going on. Is Kate suffering some kind of mental breakdown? Are The Ones Below really the malicious people Kate suspects them of?
It’s fair to say the film never pulls the rug from under your feet. You’re likely to have most of it figured out long before it happens. But much of this is by design rather than accident. Farr focuses us in on small details which you are only too aware will play a greater part in the overall puzzle. But in signposting it so much you are left without the shock of the climax. A scene towards the end should have you gasping in horror but instead has you nodding, knowing that you called it exactly right.

The Ones Below is the sort of thriller that paints a wry smirk on your face in allowing you to think you’ve come up with all the twists, even though you’ve been not so subtly guided to them by a film using genre staples as a well crafted sat nav.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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A sinister air hangs over The Ones Below, a gloriously uncomfortable psychological thriller from first time feature director, David Farr. The events that play out between two upper middle class couples in residential North London show that what lies beneath the surface is often vastly different to how it might appear above.

Kate and Justin (Cleménce Poésy and Stephen Campbell Moore) are a mid-thirties couple, well off professionals who are expecting their first child, when new couple Jon and Therese (David Morrissey and Laura Birn) move into the flat below. At first, they seem lovely, tending to the frustratingly unkempt garden and transforming it into manicured perfection, and reassuringly twee in their insistence on not wearing outdoor shoes indoors. They also have a large baby bump of their own.

Kate and Therese hang out, swim and decide to become BFFs – in large part due to their proximity, both geographically and emotionally. Yet while the couples share many things in common, their attitudes toward life and impending parenthood could not be further from one another, as they discover over a deliciously barbed and blunt upstairs dinner party one evening. Personal questions are posited, emotions and motivations challenged, prejudices unveiled, and after a nasty accident caps off the evening, lets just say that the couples lives take a serious turn for the worse.

Farr’s stage background is present in this claustrophobic four-hander which rarely ventures out of the twin-flats, but this works, for the most part, to the film’s advantage, and underpins the emotional and psychological unravelling that unfolds as shady histories, suspect behaviours and more are revealed. Noise bleed ensures the couples lives and intimacies are shared (passionate love making echoes through the walls late at night) as the front of suburban satisfaction is laid bare, and the attempts to make pretty bely Kate and Therese’s forced friendship, which leads to power games as they jostle for social and societal superiority

Farr also coaxes some wonderful performances from his actors, Poésy in particular as the mother who is unsure of her natural aptitude for the role, and Morrissey is quite stunningly imposing as Jon, whose sharp dress and well-to-do employ might not mean decency is his stock-in-trade across the board. “I know what I want,” he says over lunch at one point to Kate, before explaining to her how his precision-planned life approach ensures he always gets it, too.

Themes of social anxiety and the fear of failure, whether in relationships, as a parent (post natal depression is somewhat briefly yet carefully observed), or just as a person, are absorbing. And Farr’s film is strikingly stylised too; the garden and flat beneath are reminiscent of picture postcard family values and shiny-happy modernism, and their neighbours above dwell in a wholesome British abode populated with man-at-C&A fashions and a wooden floored kitchen that is certain to have a copy of the Guardian atop its centrally-positioned table.

There are moments that occasionally jar, as less subtle thriller tropes appear and similar ground is trod to films that precede it such as The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and Pacific Heights from the Eighties, and more recent fare such as the Samuel L. Jackson potboiler Lakeview Terrace. Yet Farr concerns himself more with the turmoil that exists within – and often with the self – even in such smartly pressed lives, as opposed to using it as a motivational plot-point through which to turn up the heat.

This monochrome suburban setting in which he makes his debut, though, makes for an all too familiar and yet macabre playground, as individuals question their own legitimacy and authority. “Are you happy?,” someone asks midway through. It’s a question that reverberates throughout this compelling and squirmy little thriller.

 

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