LFF Film Review: The Ones Below (★★)

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: Partly funded by the BBC and premiering at the Toronto and London Film Festivals, The One Below is a demonstration of the lack of imagination in British cinematic language that’s really disheartening. British cinema is often great from the eyes of an auteur with something to say, such as Mike Leigh, Terence Davies and Shane Meadows, but when it comes to something like this which is supposed to simply be a piece of thrilling entertainment, it’s disappointingly one-dimensional. I yearn for more emerging voices to get this type of exposure instead. The Ones Below is like a very good and expensive student film. Had it been conceived from a recent graduate, it’d earn a bit more of a pass. Instead, it’s overthought and underdeveloped, too often opting for cheaper tricks and easier melodrama.

Clémence Poésy, a familiar face from her role in Harry Potter, In Bruges and 127 Hours, plays mother-to-be Kate who just moved into the top half of a duplex with her husband Justin, played by Stephen Campbell Moore. Apprehensive about their downstairs neighbours, they avoid them until Kate discovers that Teresa, played by Laura Birn, is equally far along with her pregnancy. They swiftly become friends and she invites Teresa and her intimidating husband Jon, played by David Morrissey, upstairs for dinner. Though friction with conflicting personalities initially rustles tensions, it’s an unbearable tragedy at the dinner’s end that sparks the film’s ultimate story of parental paranoia in the vein of Roman Polanski’s memorable motifs on women in apartments.

To be fair, Poésy really commits to the film in the first performance I’ve seen from her which isn’t somewhere between a bit part and a supporting character. She combats the melodrama with a rawness that really benefits the film. The problems come in the film’s contrivances and staging where each actor’s hesitations and reactions are over measured. Perhaps this is due to writer/director David Farr’s previous theatre background, as it very clearly shows his lack of nuance when it comes to the bigger screen. Throughout the whole aforementioned dinner sequence, Morrisey’s eyes are shrouded in shadows as if the idea of his menacing nature couldn’t have been more subtly communicated. But admittedly, in its simplicity it is entertaining and engaging, but it’s not satisfying to be so spoon-fed. The questions it asks are superficial albeit acceptable if this was designed for Britain’s smaller screen.

There’s not an inch of the frame wasted as they try desperately to make this two-story narrative cinematic. It works, and it’s thoroughly attractive, but it’s almost too full and vibrant, not reflecting the rough tone that the film should have. Spending money on lights and cranes which are just used for unmotivated movement remove the film of a human grounding that it’s begging for. It does offer this reflection of how Kate feels later on as it grows more rugged and desperate, but it doesn’t stitch together in a way that really puts you in her head, and by that point it’s too late. The scenes feel more like examples of feelings rather than following a strong narrative thread, developing the characters beyond well worn archetypes. The language it uses is based in cliches rather than speaking a compelling voice of its own.

Otherwise it’s trying too hard to cover all ground as it shoehorns in a subplot regarding Kate’s relationship with her parents. We have a distant mother who’s unfathomably selfish and then some kind of connection with her dead father as she for some reason must brave the weather to visit her grave and leave her child in the hands of someone she explicitly doesn’t trust. The film often defies logic for the sake of an empty gravitas. It’s piling lots of ideas about relationships in social classes and anxieties about motherhood but never really exploring a single theme to a particular result. In fact, its terrifying conclusion ends up being a relieving best case scenario. It’d be unfair to call it a complete mess and its effort isn’t wasted. I just expect much better things from well-resourced British cinema that doesn’t resort to appealing to the least perceptive people in the room.