Perhaps aware that the comparisons to “Rosemary’s Baby” will arrive from the start, playwright and theatre director David Farr, making his feature film debut, acknowledges the allusions to Roman Polanski’s picture from the first frames. Our first look of Clémence Poésy in the film bears a similar fragility to Mia Farrow, and the score by Adem Ilhan (“In The Loop”) evokes lullabye-style tones not unlike Krzysztof Komeda’s work on Polanski’s picture. However, Farr doesn’t simply trod over similar ground of its predecessor, but offers an intriguing proposition: what if Rosemary Woodhouse became a mother to a perfectly healthy baby, but was driven mad not by a satanic cult, but by “The Ones Below”?
Kate (Poésy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) are the picture of a perfect couple. They each have successful careers, a lovely London flat, and a baby on the way. However, their little bubble of happiness gets popped with the arrival of Jon (David Morrisey) and Teresa (Laura Birn), who move in downstairs. The former is a blunt, gruff businessman, while the latter is chatty, sociable, and pregnant, and just about as far along as Kate. The new neighbors are slight oddballs, but Kate and Justin extend an invitation to dinner to get to know them better. It’s not the smoothest of social gatherings with Jon’s passive aggressive anti-social behavior causing Teresa to surreptitiously down glass after glass of wine. The evening is called to an early close and things take a turn for the worst, when Teresa takes a hard fall down the stairs, and loses her baby.
Needless to say, a pall is cast over Kate’s pregnancy, however, Jon and Teresa announce they’ll be going abroad to process their grief, and allow their neighbors to enjoy the arrival of their new baby without a reminder of what happened. It’s a gracious move, and when Jon and Teresa return, not only have they gotten over their anger and pain, they seem transformed as a couple, and genuinely happy for the arrival for Kate’s child. However, the new mother goes from surprised to suspicious, as the true nature of Jon and Teresa’s intentions begins to gnaw away at her psyche.
For at least the first two-thirds of “The Ones Below,” it’s a lean, simmering, psychological thriller that makes up for what it lacks in filmmaking pyrotechnics, with some pretty interesting thematic subtext. Jon and Teresa’s seemingly boundless love for one another, and their ability to bounce back passionately into their marriage, sends waves of doubt through Kate. There is a sensation of inadequacy about her romantic relationship with Justin. And when Kate sees Teresa slip so easily into caring for her child during babysitting gigs, she begins to feel deficient as a parent too. “You don’t deserve that baby inside you!” Teresa had once screamed at Kate shortly after losing her baby, and that sentiment seems to take root in the new mother and it can’t be shaken. It then starts to mutate into paranoid, frenzied mania as Kate starts to wonder if there is a sinister, ulterior motive behind her neighbors’ sudden benevolence.
Farr’s screenplay works best when it remains ambiguous. It’s not very sophisticated, but the story does keep the audience off balance. Is Kate merely suffering from all too common postpartum depression, or are Jon and Teresa slowly driving a wedge between mother and child, which by consequence is driving Kate mad, which in turn begins to eat away at the foundation of her marriage. It sounds preposterous, but seeing the narrative through Kate’s eyes, both are viable options. The ambiguity is what keeps the stakes raised, so it’s shame that Farr concludes his picture by giving definite answers, and a pat, unsatisfying resolution to everything that has happened. Had he wanted to keep the spirit of “Rosemary’s Baby,” special attention to the closing shot of that movie would’ve been a good idea. Instead, the conclusion takes the wind out of the suspense and eerie atmosphere of the proceedings, all while underlining the metaphorical nature of the film.
While “The Ones Below” doesn’t make it over the finish line, Farr shows good instincts, and has an ease for creating tension without overt manipulation, while keeping everything engaging enough that you’re willing to overlook questions that nag after the credits roll. And big props for managing to snag production designer Francesca Balestra Di Mottola (“I Am Love”), who outfits Jon and Teresa’s apartment in childlike primary colors, that veers towards the realm of Tim Burton without quite crossing over, and adds another layer of unease that both the audience and Kate experience. And though “The Ones Below” isn’t a bold new vision on the intersection of parenthood, mental unraveling, and anxiety, it’s a worthy attempt at entering that cinematic canon. [C+]