A chilling psychodrama in primary colours of maternal and social anxiety, David Farr’s The Ones Below leaves a generic horror plot holding the baby.
The Innocentsby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Having penned much of the BBC series Spooks, Joe Wright’s Hanna and adapted Susanne Bier’s The Night Manager for the small screen, David Farr has now turned his hand to directing with his debut feature The Ones Below. But rather than a spy thriller, Farr’s film follows the hopes and anxieties of a well-to-do London couple expecting their first baby. Part Rosemary’s Baby and part a yuppies-in-peril thriller, The Ones Below hinges on parental fears for their helpless neonate – easy prey for predatory would-be child-stealers. But even as it carefully negotiates the awkward emotions of middle-class angst, The Ones Below settles for an easy grab-and-run thriller rather than a clever psychological metaphor for post-natal depression.
Kate (Clémence Poésy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) have it all – a beautiful London home, successful careers and a loving marriage. And now their conjugal bliss is about to reach new heights with a bundle of joy on the way. But after a murder in the flat below, new neighbours move in – angry financier Jon (David Morrissey) and his Swedish wife Theresa (Laura Birn), who is also expecting. Neighbourly relations however quickly turn sour when after a dinner party upstairs and a catalogue of innocent chance events, Theresa falls down the stairs and a few days later loses their baby. While Theresa and Jon go away to Europe to come to terms with their grief, Kate, plagued with guilt, gives birth to a baby boy and eventually relaxes into motherhood. Until, that is, Theresa and Jon come back.
What’s perhaps most striking about David Farr’s The Ones Below is its bright colour palette, Laura Birn’s Swede constantly adorned in strident yellows and blues, like some kind of icy Scandinavian siren in IKEA colours. With Jon and Theresa’s perfect garden of privet hedges, a plastic lawn and constantly blooming flowers, there’s something strangely uncompromising about the couple downstairs, refusing to leave things to chance or let nature take its course. Could this confectionery artificiality already be a sign of mania, detached from the earthy realities of Kate and Justin’s existence, with their cosy apartment of wooden floors and industrial chic?
The couples are placed at opposite ends of the spectrum – Kate and Justin all handwringing, well-meaning honesty while Theresa and Jon bury their deadly duplicity beneath a brightly coloured gloss. But it’s a production design that cuts Farr’s film in two and which, despite a brilliant performance from Clémence Poésy, leaves an artificial, sickly aftertaste. And it’s not helped by a clumsy ending that sees Kate’s character undone by a plot forcing her (inexplicably and for her husband Justin, somewhat unbelievably) into infanticide and suicide, without so much as a hint of depression.
At its best, David Farr’s film is a delicate exploration of the conflicting emotions of motherhood and an ordinary couple’s relationship to the Other, subdued into inferiority by wealthier, more colourful and more perfect neighbours. But with this not-so-complex superiority concealing a gaping hole of murderous baby-envy, The Ones Below turns innocents into victims and drowns its potential for an emotional climax of a mother’s grief in generic horror chills. Throwing the baby out, disappointingly, with the bathwater.
The Ones Below is released on 11th March 2016 in the UK