Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Kate (Clémence Poésy) live a seemingly idyllic lifestyle. With a beautiful London flat, rewarding, high powered jobs and a baby on the way it appears, on the face of it, that everything is wonderful. It’s only when the ‘perfect’ couple Jon (David Morrissey) and Theresa (Laura Birn) move into the flat below, that things begin to unravel, with tragic and unimaginable consequences which none of them could have foreseen.
Should a critic rave about a film? Is it not part of their job to give opinions, advice and pointers to potential audiences on the merits or otherwise of a particular film, whilst ultimately remaining impartial? Well, to an extent, yes. However something occasionally comes along which provokes such strong feelings – either negatively or positively – that you simply can’t do anything but vigorously pin your colours to the mast. The Ones Below, the psychological ‘chiller’ – from BBC Films, directed and written by David Farr, and starring Clémence Poésy, Stephen Campbell Moore, David Morrissey, Laura Birn and Deborah Findlay – is one such cinematic experience. Here is a film – firmly falling into the positive category – so simple in its premise, so beautifully written, so gorgeous to look at and so downright disturbing in its possibilities and the thought that it could actually happen, that you will be hooked from the opening credits until the unexpectedly twisted ending.
Without wishing to spoil your enjoyment of the film, suffice to say that this said ending does not exactly bode well for everyone involved. One can imagine that, had it been produced by a large Hollywood studio, a way would have been found to introduce a copout, ‘happy’ conclusion to the film. However, one of the best things about works from smaller, independent filmmakers like BBC Films or their Channel 4 counterpart Film4 – OK, these companies may not strictly speaking be minor league players, but they are still relatively modest compared to America’s West Coast behemoths – is that they don’t feel the obligation to play to every whim of fickle mass audiences. Obviously they want their films to do well, but they don’t let that get in the way of a good, well produced story, which doesn’t depend on the copious amounts of CGI trickery to produce a memorable result.
Which is exactly the case with The Ones Below. Here is a film which finds atmosphere and seeping unease in everyday surroundings and people, and a situation which, though you keep telling yourself shouldn’t be able to happen, you realise actually could and is. This ‘normality is what is truly unsettling – Justin and Kate’s frequently humdrum existence with the mundaneness and frustrations of juggling jobs and a home-life, is counterbalanced with the happiness experienced by bringing a new baby into the world, and tender moments shared between them. This, along with their slightly ramshackle, bohemian home, is juxtaposed with the rigidity of their new neighbours, Jon and Theresa, who live in a world of ‘Stepford Wives’ perfection with clipped box hedges in the garden, his and hers bathroom towels and membership of the most exclusive health spas and dining clubs in town.
The film’s depiction of a familiar London, is tinged with the unobtainable, a magical otherworldliness. Leafy suburban streets – often, as here, in some unnamed area to the North of Regents Park or Camden Lock – are lined with tall, narrow, multi-storey townhouses, reached by flights of faded stone steps. Open plan offices are filled with people doing the kind of jobs everyone else wishes they could do, whilst others are like Kate who has the freedom of working from home, with only the occasional visit to her studio at the V&A as and when the situation calls for it. Here is a city that only exists in the imagination of writers and filmmakers, but thats sense of outward tranquility, perfection and ease simply serves to highlight the horrors and psychotic neuroses which simmer beneath the surface for so many of us.
The actors playing the two opposing couples are perfectly cast. Poésy and Campbell Moore capture the right degree of laid-back comfort with each other, coloured by the sporadic bursts of frustration experienced by all loving couples. Birn and Morrissey on the other hand, marvellously embody a relationship and lifestyle where they want for nothing materially, yet seem lacking in that special ‘something’ which you feel with someone with whom you are perfectly at ease.
If you are looking for horror which depends on visceral frights and squirm inducing depictions of violence and mutilation, then The Ones Below will most likely not be for you. If though you enjoy depth and style with a sense of disquiet which works beneath your skin and lingers on in the mind, then you’ll undoubtedly appreciate this film. Even seeing it for a second time did not diminish my enjoyment of it, and I am truly jealous that I can’t now experience the delight you will have in seeing it for the first time.