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David Farr takes the giddy, heady days of early motherhood—the frustration and isolation, the exhaustion and confusion—and mines them for creepy, paranoid thrills in “The Ones Below.”
Farr, a screenwriter (“Hanna,” TV’s “The Night Manager”) who’s also making his feature directing debut, truly seems to get the potent mix of hormones and emotions at work during this magical time. Sure, you’re proud and elated. You’ve made a person. You’re #blessed. But—especially if it’s your first and/or only child—you don’t really know what you’re doing in a situation where everything is at stake.
Are you losing your mind? Or do you just need a nap? Farr roams around smartly and confidently in that gray area.
His film begins optimistically enough, though, as married, attractive Londoners Kate (Clémence Poésy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) visit the doctor for an ultrasound of their impending bundle of joy. Everything looks great and they’re all smiles driving home, but the tinkly, slightly eerie scores suggests something is afoot early on.
Soon enough, new neighbors have moved into the flat beneath theirs—one that was left empty following the death of its occupant, along with a garden that’s abandoned and overgrown. But the fastidious, fashionably dressed Theresa (Laura Birn) and Jon (David Morrissey) spruce things up quickly with their candy-colored décor and meticulous floral design. And—what are the odds?—Theresa happens to be pregnant, too, just a few weeks further along than Kate.
And so these privileged blondes, both expectant moms, form what seems like a natural friendship—although Theresa is always a little too eager, too complimentary, too familiar. (Birn, a sleek, Finnish beauty, is simultaneously sexy and foreboding.) Farr expertly puts us on edge through the simplest conversations, with attempts at small talk that always feel slightly awkward.
This is before he even formally introduces Jon, who has the exact opposite temperament from his wife’s. Whereas she’s sunny and vibrant, he’s brusque and humorless. His uptight insistence on removing shoes and lining them up side-by-side outside the front door tells you everything you need to know about him. “The Ones Below” is full of observant, idiosyncratic details like this throughout.
Their difference in demeanor becomes especially clear when Kate and Justin invite them upstairs for a dinner party. Theresa politely declines an offer of wine, insisting she wouldn’t dream of drinking when she’s expecting, only to guzzle down several glasses of chardonnay when Jon isn’t looking. And, well … things go significantly downhill from there. That’s all we’ll say.
Cut to a few months later. Kate has given birth to her baby, a little boy named Billy. And here’s where things start getting really tense. Billy is healthy and Kate and Justin are doing fine, if a little bleary-eyed, at first. But odd occurrences and disturbing noises begin piling up, steadily driving them to a frenzy: the blast of a car alarm night after night, or an overflowing bathtub, or muffled sounds on the baby monitor. A neighborly offer of a glass of lemonade or a cat slinking underfoot suddenly seem sinister, and Kate and Justin’s airy flat makes them feel claustrophobic.
An allusion to mental illness in Kate’s family and the conspicuous strain that exists between her and her mother Tessa (Deborah Findlay) magnify the mystery. The fresh-faced Poésy, however, offers Kate as a pragmatist from the start. She’s down-to-Earth and relatable, which makes her eventual panic not just understandable but justifiable.
It’s a slow burn, but even as events turn more than a tad preposterous with twists that seem not just predictable but inevitable, Farr keeps a handle on the tension and tone, which keeps us hooked. Comparisons to Roman Polanski—particularly to “Rosemary’s Baby”—might seem obvious given the subject matter and setting. But Farr’s film stands on its own: lean, brisk and stylistically precise, and mercilessly free of gratuitous jump scares and gore.
And at under 90 minutes, it’s just the perfect length for a new mom to watch to pass the time while her baby is taking an afternoon nap.