David Farr, writer of Hanna and the recent miniseries adaptation of The Night Manager, has had a long career directing on the stage. With his script for The Ones Below, he takes his first spin directing a feature film, delivering a chilly, tense psychological thriller.
Kate (Clémence Poésy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) are expecting their first child soon, when another couple moves into the duplex apartment below theirs. Teresa (Laura Birn) is even more visibly pregnant than Kate is, and Jon (David Morrissey) is even more excited to be a father. In fact, he left his first wife when she couldn't have a child, and married the much-younger Teresa specifically to increase the chances.
We find this out at dinner upstairs in Kate and Justin's place. It's after dinner that things go awry. The hallway is dark, and Justin didn't get a chance to change the bulb while cooking. The cat darts out of nowhere, and Teresa trips on her shoes and takes a spill down the stairs. It's a tragic accident that causes her to miscarry, despite being so near to term. But Teresa and Jon see neglect, or even malice, in the underlit hallway. Justin tries to point out that they'd placed their own shoes at the top of the stairs even though they hadn't been asked to take them off. And Kate brings up the gulps of wine Teresa would sneak while Jon wasn't looking, which Teresa vehemently denies.
The peace broken, Teresa and Jon retreat to Frankfurt until they can overcome their grief and honestly congratulate Kate and Justin on their child, which they do when they return. But there seems to be some menace behind their smiles. Teresa takes to Billy, offering to babysit him often, but Kate grows more and more uneasy about her interest. There's nothing she can quite put her finger on, though; she's already frazzled with postpartum hormones and a fussy baby who can't yet sleep through the night. And is it just her imagination, or are car alarms along the street outside going off more frequently than they used to? It would probably be easy to gaslight any new mother. Throw in Kate's ambivalence over the idea of being a mother at all, and her own mother (Deborah Findlay) who seems just as ambivalent towards her, and it's bound to be trying even if the downstairs neighbors aren't trying to drive her crazy.
Farr chooses to avoid making things very explicit, which cuts both ways. On the one hand, it's difficult to tell until right at the end whether Teresa and Jon are tormenting Kate, or whether it's all in her head. On the other, we don't get anything really out there that only Kate sees, as we might in a movie like, well, Gaslight. The result keeps us guessing, but tends to err more on the side of the psychological than the thrilling.
More frustrating is the red herring in Teresa's behavior at dinner. Jon is clearly shown to have a driving interest in fatherhood. When Kate and Justin say they weren't always sure they'd wanted to have a child, he takes it as almost a personal affront. And while Teresa says she always knew she'd wanted a child, she gives hints that her feelings are less definitive than Jon's, most obviously when she sneaks those mouthfuls of wine that may have led to the fall. And yet, despite bringing it up so clearly, we never return to the idea that her feelings might diverge from Jon's. It's a glaring fly in the otherwise-smooth ointment Farr has crafted, and it remained a constant distraction for the rest of the movie.
Rating: 3 out of 5