Tenser and queasier than your average thriller, The Ones Below finds two soon-to-be parents living in a flat above another expecting couple, an improbable scenario that turns even more improbably tragic and horrific. Parenthood is both a blessing and a curse, and writer-director David Farr captures both sides, stretching the creepy-neighbor tension to its breaking point throughout. It’s almost exhausting watching the high-strung domestic drama play out, with nary a moment of respite to cling onto, but Farr’s evocative use of lighting, editing and sound can at times provide something else to ponder should moments of the story prove too intense to stomach.
Harry Potter alum Clémence Poésy plays Kate, the female half of the upstairs, decidedly normal couple in this London-set neighborly standoff. She and her journalist husband Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) have just moved into their second-floor flat in anticipation of the arrival of their first child, and the couple downstairs, half-Finnish Theresa (Laura Birn) and her financier husband Jon (The Walking Dead’s David Morrissey), are only a few weeks ahead in their own pregnancy.
Kate takes an immediate liking to Theresa, but things go haywire when, over a double-date dinner, she admits she wasn’t sure she wanted to be a mother until relatively recently. Theresa and Jon are shocked and almost disgusted at the notion, explaining that they’ve been trying for seven years to have a child. Thick as black treacle is the shade they throw at Kate and Justin for their perceived lack of earnestness in their roles as future parents, and from there, the rift only widens.
Perhaps the only thing stranger than Theresa and Jon’s obsession with parenthood is their bizarre everyday behavior, like how they never wear shoes inside anyone’s home (including their own). Theresa’s sunny disposition is clearly not as genuine as she thinks it appears, and Jon’s violently controlling nature seems to have rubbed off on her in a terrible way (she drinks wine behind his back during dinner, baby be damned). The creepy couple’s true nature is unveiled when an accident leads to Theresa losing her baby and they blame Kate and Justin for their loss.
A sick mind game of revenge and jealousy drives the rest of the movie, and Farr ramps up the intensity to ungodly levels from scene to scene. What the movie seems to be missing is just a touch of humor, of the wicked variety. There’s no levity here, which makes the affair a bit too heavy and overpowering to recommend. You want badly to relish in the mischievousness of Theresa and snicker at her and Jon’s devious manipulation of the upstairs couple, but there are no such dark pleasures to be found. It’s all serious, stark and off-putting.
To Farr’s credit, however, the film is consistently engaging. The story unfolds quite elegantly, and his visual and aural style reflects the characters’ emotions at all times. The actors, too, find the precise emotions in every scene (though it would have also been nice to see more from Morrissey, whose performance largely feels like it exists on the periphery). The overall cohesion of the presentation is the film’s greatest strength. There’s a wonderful motif that runs throughout that sees Kate staring down at Theresa lounging in the garden from the upstairs window; one’s bathed in shadow, the other drenched in sun. It’s imagery that evolves and becomes more powerful as the plot progresses, and it’s an idea that sort of becomes the supporting pillar of the film. An excellent touch by Farr, who demonstrates some keen filmic instincts in his feature debut.
Where the story loses its grip is in the later acts, when Kate and Justin’s baby arrives and misdirection and not-so-subtle visual cues to the audience begin to override the themes built up so nicely in the beginning. The plot also becomes increasingly predictable, as the evil neighbors’ master plan is pretty much clear from the moment their dream slips through their fingers and they set their eyes on Kate and Justin’s bundle of joy. The Ones Below explores some incredibly dark and unnerving ideas and has a notable level of polish, but it wears out its welcome with a bludgeoning, heavy tone that grows tiresome over time.
The Ones Below is a polished creepy-neighbor thriller that ramps up its dark intensity a little too much, resulting in a somewhat tiresome, overwhelming experience.