A recurring theme this year is the complexities of motherhood: the desire to have children and the extent to which one will go to protect one’s child. It has been addressed in Anne Zohra Berrached’s excellent 24 Wochen (Silver Bear for Julia Jentsch, anyone?), Jordan Schiele‘s melodramatic San Fu Tian, Tatiana Huezo’s poetic Tempestad and even touched upon in Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi chase film Midnight Special.
Shelley and The Ones Below both tackle this theme through the suspenseful lens of the horror genre... with polarizing results.
Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and Kasper (Peter Christofferson) are a Danish couple who live in almost total isolation in the middle of woods, near a misty lake. They hide from the modern world: no electricity, no technology... and no meat. She dreams of becoming a mother but keeps miscarrying. The arrival of a Romanian maid, Elena (Cosmina Stratan), could be the answer to their desperate prayers. Cash-strapped and thinking about her own child back in Romania with her parents, Elena agrees to become their surrogate. However, as the painful pregnancy progresses, so does her feeling that something is not quite right about the baby...
All sound very familiar?
From its gothic opening to Elena’s arrival, Shelley does seem to tick off an awful lot of genre tropes and the last thing you’d expect is for your expectations to be subverted. How wrong you’d be. Scripted by Ali Abbasi and Maren Louise Käehne (a name many Borgen and The Bridge fans will be familiar with), Shelley tips its cap to Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, but sidesteps assumptions with a thematically rich story which deals with parenting as well as privileged Europeans’ attitudes towards immigrants.
Abbasi directs with the flair of a seasoned pro and is clearly well-versed in how to throw a curveball or two. He also clearly understands that it is always more terrifying not to reveal too much, to remain thrifty when it comes to flashy effects and to favour the inflation of tension at all times. His craft is matched by that of Nadim Carlsen and Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (of Victoria fame): their cinematography captures the coldly claustrophobic feel of the stunning landscape, making Shelley nothing less than an atmospheric psychological horror gem.
When it comes to the cast, all are on top form but the show belongs to Stratan. Best known for her award winning turn at Cannes in Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, she manages to credibly convey her fears to the point of being unrecognizable as the pregnancy takes its toll. You feel for her every step of the way and the palpable paranoia relies heavily on her performance.
Shelley confidently riffs on cinematic touchstones and moulds its own identity; The Ones Below does not.
Theatre director David Farr helms his first feature length film and for a man whose screenwriting credits include some of the TV series Spooks’ most ambitious seasons, you’d think that some potent thrills will be coming your way. Sadly, the story about how “in London, you never know your neighbours” comes off as a reheated The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. It focuses on how one expectant mother (Laura Birn) loses her child; her husband (David Morrissey) initially blames the tragedy on her expectant neighbour (Clémence Poésy) and her husband (Stephen Campbell Moore). As time goes on and her baby is born, the tormented Poésy becomes more and more paranoid: are the downstairs lodgers really out to get her and her child or is this a hefty case of postpartum depression?
The always reliable Poésy and Morrissey both do their level best with one-note characters, but nothing can stop The Ones Below from its schlocky, Hitchcock-wannabe script. Unlike the infinitely more sophisticated Shelley, Farr’s film is syphoned of any real tension from the get-go; every narrative beat is telegraphed and if you weren’t sure how to feel, you can always refer to the supposedly ominous children’s chorus chanting “la-la-la” when doubt kicks in.
The predictable moments continue to pile on, so much so that you’ll start getting distracted by other incidental aspects of the script, such as: How do these people afford such homes in London? What kind of name is Billy anyway? Do you really need saffron in risotto?
The promise of an unsuspected final flourish that could redeem the story and justify the clichés never materializes and what you’re left with is a by-the-numbers film that is so indebted to past masters it forgets to stand on its own two feet. It comes to the point that an entire twist is heavily inspired by an infamous detail from Hitchcock’s Suspicion and the last shot reeks of Polanski. Paying casual homage is fine but here, the overwhelming sense of déjà-vu borders on boredom.
So, make sure to catch the atmospheric chiller and bypass the thoroughly average B-movie thriller. And if anyone has any insights into the use of saffron in risotto, feel free to get in touch.
(Most. Middle-class. Sentence. Ever.)
Shelley | Feb 16, 22:30, CinemaxX 7; Feb 17, 20:15, CineStar 3; Feb 18, 22:30, Cubix 7+8; Feb 19, 22:30, Colosseum 1
The Ones Below | Feb 18, 20:00, CinemaxX7; Feb 19, 22:45, CineStar 3; Feb 20, 20:15, Cubix 7+8; Feb 21, 22:30, Cubix 7+8