My notes on the British psycho-thriller … set just round the corner from where I live.
Writer-director David Farr builds this paranoid mystery/suspense psycho-drama around a fairly commonplace but rarely chronicled situation. Set and shot in Islington, it’s about the relationship – often fractious in real life, as several people I know in the area can attest – between flat-owners in houses which have been converted own into two- or three-flat buildings, who share a front door and a stretch of hallway but otherwise have separate dwelling spaces – the people who live upstairs often cast envious glances at the garden, while the people who live downstairs worry about noise leakage or plumbing mishaps from above … and there’s often friction about who maintains and cleans that hallway. All of these tiny little concerns are worked into the script, but there’s an even more sinister streak to the tale, which sends viewpoint character Kate (Clemence Poesy, dowdied down a bit from her usual stunning gorgeousness) into a mental spiral as she begins to think she’s being Gaslighted by the downstairs neighbours.
Kate, who vaguely works from home, is pregnant after some indecision – motivated by troubles with her own mother (Deborah Findlay) and a family tragedy which isn’t specified until late in the day – and her busy husband Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore, always good as self-involved upper-middle class gits, cf: The Children) is distantly supportive. They are distracted when the jungle of a garden is cleared away and replaced by something that looks like a Teletubbies set – too-green lawn and regimented rows of shrubs – and the new neighbours turn out to be spacey Finnish sexpot Teresa (Laura Birn), also pregnant, and her rich, older, quietly aggressive husband Jon (David Morrissey). When the couples get together for a meal, there’s a lot of tension – with Jon and Teresa simmering at Kate’s lack of fanatical commitment to motherhood because they’ve been trying for years to get pregnant, and Teresa sneaking drinks when Jon isn’t looking – and a disaster as, thanks to tipsiness, shoes on the step and an unreplaced burned-out lightbulb in the hall, Teresa falls downstairs and loses the baby. Ferocious argument ensues and the ones below get out of town while Kate has her baby … then the neighbours come back, in conciliatory-creepy mode, and offer to help out with the childcare, insinuating themselves into Kate’s life and perhaps getting between her and her newborn. Perhaps-innocent mishaps – a persistent car alarm, an overfull bathtub, an odd allergy that leads to constant squalling – fray Kate’s nerves and she becomes convinced that the neighbours have designs on her child, and Justin proves himself useless in assuming she’s suffering post-natal craziness rather than being plotted against.
It’s an effective, creepy, unsettling picture for much of its running time, but works better when the plot is subtle (should Kate blithely drink so much milk or Teresa’s homemade lemonade?) than in a last reel which changes viewpoint inelegantly and then has to spring a what-really-happened montage that explains developments which would work better left ambiguous. The real casualty is Poesy, whose excellent performance gets curtailed as the twists set in – though the film gets back on track with its unnerving payoff. The three supporting performances are also excellent, though the actors have to hold back on giving too much away – Birn (from the Finnish film Purge) and Morrissey are plausible and yet manage to be menacing.
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