Unravelling in the familiar, close quarters of a Victorian London conversion, the directorial debut of writer David Farr (Hanna, TV’s The Night Manager) aims for the claustrophobic chills of Rosemary’s Baby, but comes closer to the outlandish bunny boiler camp of Fatal Attraction.
A long-term couple expecting their first baby, Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Kate (Clémence Poésy), are initially delighted when fellow parents-to-be Teresa (Laura Birn) and Jon (David Morrissey) move in downstairs. It soon becomes clear, however, that their new neighbours aren’t quite as perfect as they seem and, following a catastrophic dinner, relations rapidly diminish.
The Ones Below looks the part, with evocative production design from Francesca Balestra Di Mottola and stalking camerawork from cinematographer Ed Rutherford (Archipelago, Exhibition) but, while we’re firmly encouraged to buy into a sense of creeping dread, the terror never actually materialises. That’s largely to do with the fact that the horror is painted with broad, clichéd strokes, as motherhood becomes both common and battle ground.
The film may handle the brutal truths of life with a newborn well enough, and both Campbell Moore and Poésy are strong as the professional couple whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of their son, but it falls flat when it attempts to mine the psychology of the situation. Both female characters are done a disservice by a short-sighted, reductive narrative which defines them entirely by their approach to motherhood. Indeed, a woman’s impulse to reproduce is presented both as a given – Kate is a careerist who realises her true biological calling; Teresa is desperate for nothing more than multiple children – and, somewhat conflictingly, the catalyst for increasingly unhinged behaviour which has veered well into farce by the obvious denouement.
While The Ones Below may be an attempt to explore the darker side of parenthood, it lacks the subtlety or insight of films like The Babadook and A Second Chance. Instead it uses its multidimensional themes as nothing more than an excuse for superficial scares.
UK release: March 11, 2016
This review was originally published by The List