It seems that in today’s cinematic landscape, where the thriller is a genre mostly associated with blazing guns and big action set-pieces, the Hitchcockian vibes of a good old-fashioned psychological giallo are a rarity to come by. That’s why a film like The Ones Below is a welcome reminder of how satisfying and fun this kind of suspenseful storytelling can be.
Written and directed by David Farr, making his feature debut here, The Ones Below echoes the cinema of Hitchcock, but also Polanski and Lynch, with a literary influence from Franz Kafka.
A dark, modern fairy tale, the film follows Kate (Clémence Poésy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a married couple of successful professionals expecting their first child. Despite a seemingly happy life, we promptly get an underlying sense of unease, especially on Kate’s part. She is anxious about the pregnancy and disappointed by her mother’s lack of effort in making contact with her about it.
As she works from home, Kate often indulges staring at a photo of what we infer is her mother with her and her brother when they were children. We won’t delve any further into this but it’s clear that something in Kate’s past has affected the relationship with her mother and has played a role in her reluctance to have children for a while. All of this complex emotional turmoil comes to the surface when Kate and Justin get new neighbours in the downstairs flat and their lives get fatally intertwined.
Teresa (Laura Birn) and Jon (David Morrissey) are the polar opposite of Kate and Justin, an ostentatious couple who don’t mind PDA and loud bedroom noises, thrilled to be expecting a child as well, having tried for several years. Kate befriends Teresa and they promptly bond but when the couple comes round for a tense dinner, we feel that not everything is perfect behind their pristine appearance. When a fatal accident causes Teresa to lose her baby, the underlying tension eventually blows up.
It’s not too hard to see where things might go from here but David Farr’s writing and directing is rather crafty and the brilliant cast does a marvelous job at enacting his vision and keep you guessing. Poésy (Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire, In Bruges, 127 Hours) is magnetic and soulful at conveying Kate’s inner turmoil, whilst Morrissey (The Walking Dead) keeps us on edge as the wealthy businessman, seemingly calm and controlled, but ready to snap at any moment.
The devil’s in the details and the promising British filmmaker doesn’t spare us any, creating the very essence of suspense by carefully manipulating mood and atmosphere with the cinematic tools at his disposal, from cinematography and set design to editing and sound. At the core though, beneath the various layers of a genre film, Farr reflects on marriage and parenthood and the dense complexity of human relationships hidden behind the polished façade of a white picket fence or, in this case, a red-bricked enclosure.
Words by Francesco Cerniglia