‘The Girl Before’ Review: Gugu Mbatha-Raw Commands HBO Max’s Hitchcockian Mystery

"The Girl Before" doesn't feel like a conventional suspense story. That's its strength.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw
"The Girl Before"
Amanda Searle

There’s a feeling of familiarity in Lisa Brühlmann’s adaptation of J.P. Delaney’s “The Girl Before.” It’s possible that feeling comes from how deeply inspired it seems by Hitchcock features, particularly “Vertigo.” Or maybe it’s how the story weaves between two separate women who share far more in common than they realize. Brühlmann herself has worked on twisty stories of dueling women in the likes of “Killing Eve,” and while this HBO Max series never veers into that frenetic territory, it shows the quadrants “The Girl Before” is hitting. It makes for one emotionally complex and engaging four-part series.

As Jane (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) says upon entering the minimalist house designed by brilliant architect Edward Monkford (David Oyelowo), “It feels like it’s waiting for someone.” The house itself has everything: a below market rent, a housekeeper system that would make Siri blush, and a list of rules that includes not bringing any personal items. Jane is selected by Edward to move into the house and once there she discovers the house comes with a history, including the recent death of a young woman named Emma (Jessica Plummer). The two women share not only a striking resemblance but also past traumas that might be manipulated against them.

The air of foreboding is immediate, or maybe it’s because anytime someone offers a cheap house in a film or TV the correct answer is to run away. The series weaves scenes of Jane and Emma, along with Emma’s boyfriend Simon (Ben Hardy) seeing One Folgate Street for the first time. Jane and Emma both see the house as a means of starting over: Jane after losing a child and Emma as the result of having her flat burgled. There’s a jarring disconnect the viewer has to get used to as it’s not immediately clear what is past and present. Scenes of Emma and Jane start out as separate scenes, one following the other, only to eventually become spliced in such a way that the connection between where Emma ends and Jane begins is blurred.

Mbatha-Raw has always been a dynamic presence on-screen and as Jane she creates a lush and layered performance of a woman searching for answers. She tells Edward she strives to live in the house with integrity, but it’s apparent that this is just a mask, a stiff upper lip to keep from falling into the grief that’s isolated her. The loss of her daughter has left Jane chronically asking if there’s something she did wrong. It’s a sentiment shared by Emma, who in the wake of her trauma keeps believing she could have avoided things if she had acted differently.

David Oyelowo, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
“The Girl Before”HBO Max

You’d believe the central narrative of the four-episode series would involve the house or Edward’s past, and while those things are present they aren’t what keeps the audience’s investment. That honor goes to Mbatha-Raw and Plummer who mine the depths of feminist history to enhance a narrative about the ways women are often blamed and forced to account for every decision, good and bad, they’ve ever made. Plummer is especially spellbinding as much of her storyline involves rape culture and the ways women, particularly Black women, are ignored by the system if they aren’t perceived as useful.

Each woman has moments to shine, but Plummer’s arc is so heartbreaking you can’t not be drawn into it as Jane is. Plummer is an open book, her face expressing every sense of desire, fear, and disappointment Emma goes through throughout the series’ four-episodes. She’s bouncy and joyous, but as the series progresses it’s easy to see how the cracks were always there. Her relationship with Simon looks cute on the surface, but upon a rewatch it’s possible to see where issues might arise. As Emma’s world becomes more closed in watching the anguish on Plummer’s face veers on uncomfortable because of how real it is.

Brühlmann also talks about control, using Emma’s demise and the mystery within to examine how men often compel women to put on a face for them. David Oyelowo feels like the weakest link in the series, if only because he comes off as having the least amount of screentime. He’s a quiet enigma, having designed the house for his wife and child to live in but, of course, a tragedy changed his plans. Oyelowo is charming in his coldness, being forthright in what he wants from Jane and Emma, but not necessarily offering them much in return. He’s a man to whom a crying woman causes him to say, “Crying is good, something about the chemicals in the tears.”

He is the Jimmy Stewart in this Hitchcockian-level thriller, embarking on relationships with both Jane and Emma. It’s a sense of repetition that Jane immediately finds suspect and only galvanizes her desire to examine not necessarily Edward, but Emma specifically. It’s a sly turn in the script that Jane isn’t particularly interested in finding out Edward’s history (though she is because of the plot), but that she feels the need to speak for Emma. The two women may be seen by Edward as the same woman, offering him the same things, but Jane wants to break the circle and illustrate that each woman should have received far more from him, from society, from the world.

“The Girl Before” doesn’t feel like a conventional mystery and that is its strength. It feels akin to a staged performance, with the character predominately relegated to One Folgate Street. Mbatha-Raw and Plummer are powerhouses in a story that sticks with you because it’s a slice of reality.

Grade: B

“The Girl Before” premieres Thursday, February 10 on HBO Max.

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