Sometimes a film is intrinsically indebted to another. The Ones Below owes such gratitude to Roman Polanski’s pregnancy horror classic, Rosemary’s Baby. Building directly from another film, especially one as renowned and distinctive as Polanksi’s, adds a certain amount of pressure and expectation to a film; unfair or not, audiences expect you to either trump your predecessor or add to its legacy. Unfortunately David Farr’s debut does neither, instead straddling mediocrity from start to finish.
The Ones Below heavily riffs on Rosemary’s Baby’s two central themes: perversion of pregnancy and all-encompassing paranoia. Both films also take place within the deceptively dangerous confines of a suburban apartment. But rather than delving into satanic cults, Farr’s film rests on a much more ordinary set up.
In the classy suburban setting of Islington, London, young couple Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Kate (Clémence Poésy) are having a baby. In the weeks leading up to the due date a new pregnant couple, Jon (David Morrissey) and Teresa (Laura Birn), move into the apartment below. The couples soon bond over their similar situations and proximity, eventually sitting down together for an obligatory dinner party at Justin and Kate’s place. During the meal, a catastrophic accident makes the awkward tensions over garden arrangements the least of their concerns. The psychological fallout of this trauma lingers heavily with Kate and soon leaves her questioning her own sanity as the ones below grow increasingly peculiar.
This was a psychological nightmare with the potential to be as powerful as any of Polanski’s brilliant Apartment Trilogy. Farr’s underlying themes of reclusion and the dark side of suburbia are sound; it’s in its rote execution that The Ones Below falls apart. Farr too often lapses into clichés that we’ve all seen before and, most crucially, tells the audience what’s happening rather lets them work out themselves. Following the dinner party, the film sets itself on a familiar path and sticks to it.
Farr establishes the couples as polar opposites but does it so blatantly that it undermines the narrative. Jon and Teresa dress in garish matching outfits and live in an apartment furnished exclusively with minimalist Ikea castoffs. Their bright, ordered and ostentatious world is the total opposite of Justine and Kate’s normality. To stress the contrasts, the latter duo are draped in lifeless colours. Kate’s sickly, pale appearance is so excessively laid on that it becomes unintentional parody. There’s no subtlety to Farr’s portraits. If The Ones Below were a comedy or overtly surreal the obviousness might have a place, but in the context of a straight-faced horror thriller, it’s not credible.
The script and storytelling are equally weak, too often resorting to exposition with none of the slick self-referential style of Hitchcock. Farr forces narrative developments about Kate’s family’s mental health history or that Jon left his ex-wife for infertility into conversations with a total lack of finesse. The dialogue rarely feels natural and seems to exist solely to force the story along rather than build characters.
Similarly, the psychological terror of The Ones Below – if you can call it that – lacks suspense or novelty. When Kate sneaks into the other apartment you just know that either Jon or Teresa is going to unexpectedly come home. When Justin asks where the spare key is, we know exactly who has it. Either Farr lacks imagination or he reckons none of his audience has ever seen a thriller before. The predictability insults the intelligence of the viewer.
Farr’s weaknesses project onto his cast with damaging results. The usually reliable David Morrissey clumsily shouts his way through the film. Worse still, Poésy fails to convince as a woman who may be losing her mind; this idea is hardly communicated beyond her slightly bedraggled hair and makeup. Her performance is limp, unaided by the beige script – the total opposite to Polanski’s captivating crazed heroines in Catherine Deneuve and Mia Farrow. Without a strong lead holding the film together, everything else failed to resonate with me emotionally. Are we supposed to care what happens to Kate or her ever-wailing child? Because I didn’t.
The Ones Below ends in suitably dull fashion, tantamount to the unconvincing foundations it’s built on. Every aspect of the film sits mired in mediocrity under David Farr’s guiding hand. The production has an amateur air floating over it as if it were an undergraduate’s final year film project or a straight-to-Netflix special. That is to say The Ones Below isn’t a diabolical mess – it’s just a forgettable iteration on hundreds of films that came before it. If you really want to feel the pain of child birth, save yourself the trouble with this one and re-watch Rosemary’s Baby instead.
Movie Verdict: Fail
This review is part of Jonny’s ongoing coverage of the 2015 London Film Festival. For more reviews, click here.