Director: David Farr
Cast: Clémence Poésy, David Morrissey, Laura Birn
Much of the critical response surrounding David Farr’s directorial debut has compared his screenplay’s slowly developing paranoia to that of Polanski or Hitchcock, and while there’s a slight hint of these revered directors within the confines of The Ones Below (very hard to avoid considering its structure), these comparisons are cheap and lazy, contributing to elevated expectations for what was, in reality, a tame, dumbed-down psychological thriller that would’ve found more appropriate placing on late-night TV.
Parents-to-be Kate (Clémence Poésy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) move to a new apartment above a suitably campy couple, Jon (David Morrissey) and Theresa (Laura Birn), whose similarities bridge a new connection with the respective couples, and whose differences highlight the cracks in their ostensibly happy lives. Every move and response presented by the cast screamed something wrong in an overtly theatrical way: from the stilted (Birn’s chit-chat) and the exaggerated (Morrissey’s yelling), to the incredulous (Poésy’s sleuthing) and the dishwater (Moore’s everything). Every scene was punctuated with heightened reactions that didn’t seem justifiable even after the catastrophic event that shifts the momentum to bunny-boiling psycho thriller. Once Jon and Theresa’s machinations are revealed before Farr’s grand, endless reveal, the remainder of the film feels routine, each husband and wife pair going through mechanical motions to prove one guiltier than the other, or to prove that Poésy’s suspicions were nothing more than emotionally driven delirium. If the film were less obvious about the direction it was heading toward, then the connecting-the-dots would’ve been more fun to watch, but as we’re already fully aware of the extent of the ones below’s deranged plot, it’s frustrating and detrimental that we’re witnesses to Poésy’s constant dismissal and subsequent mental decline.
Speaking of The Hysterical Woman trope, it’s the cheapest move that Farr could have made. A small number of scenes show us what’s true (it’s unambiguous, really) so we know what Kate sees: finding irrefutable proof of foul play only for the evidence to magically dissappear (in the most visible case, from a digital camera’s SD card). It’s bad enough that this inferior tactic advises a suspension of disbelief that I’m sure most cinemagoers wouldn’t stretch to, but it’s infinitely worse when it propagates the fact that an intimidated woman is painted in this way: trying so desperately to prove her distrust while her husband stands by and warns that her irrational and emotionally driven response is humiliating. It’s tedious, and even if the rest of the film were much better than it was, it still would have caused irreparable damage.
Farr’s staging and Ed Rutherford’s camerawork were similarly distracting, choices to hold stiff on slow zooms through the flat that revealed utterly nothing resulted in a surge of unfocused, wasteful shots that seemed pertinent at the time, but at the resolution proved to be wholly pointless. This, much like the script’s deceptive character traits and The Hysterical Woman trope, was an issue when it became clear that Farr was more interested in hoodwinking the audience into assuming multiple layers of significance when there was none.
The Ones Below shows a huge mistreatment of talent – Poésy and Morrissey are always watchable, but so very wrongly cast – that parades its big ideas almost from the off, forgetting to add thrills to this pregnancy-invasion potboiler by creating poorly formed characters, including reactionary decisions that provide little to no function to the story, and a ending with a frustratingly laborious resolution. It could have been so much better, but it would have had to do something miraculous to be comparable to those that critics have so frequently alluded to.