“In London, you never know your own neighbors,” observes the cosmopolitan creep downstairs in “The Ones Below,” a compact psychological thriller that makes a mostly persuasive argument for why that’s the case. With apologies due to Roman Polanski, David Farr’s debut feature brings the maternal anxiety (and “la-la-la” choral accents) of “Rosemary’s Baby” to the brittle quarters of a tony British two-flat. Making a tentative jump from stage to screen — though he does have a co-writing credit on Joe Wright’s “Hanna” — Farr delves into the sticky issue of parental ambivalence, but he only goes deep enough to carve a small pit in the viewer’s stomach. Premiering as part of the Toronto Film Festival’s City to City program, the film channels London’s chilly reputation effectively, but doesn’t stand to travel too far beyond city limits.
Set in one of those buildings where secrets (and vigorous sex noises) travel up the ventilation shaft, “The Ones Below” turns on the relationship between two expectant mothers with contrasting emotions about having their first child. Kate (Clemence Poesy) lives upstairs with her husband, Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore), and 10 years into their marriage, she’s finally acquiesced to having a baby, but hasn’t entirely shaken off her reluctance. Kate initially hits it off with her vivacious new neighbor, Theresa (Laura Birn), who greets the prospect of motherhood with unbridled enthusiasm. When Kate and Justin invite Theresa and her much older husband, Jon (David Morrissey), for dinner, they learn that the couple had been trying for seven years to conceive.
The dinner party carries the awkward tenor of people gathering more out of obligation than camaraderie, but the evening takes an ugly turn when a tragic accident drives a permanent wedge between the two couples. Hoping to secure the courtesies of neighbors in tight quarters, Kate and Justin are instead treated to a campaign of psychological torment from “the ones below,” who may be harboring a hidden agenda. The tension is particularly hard on Kate once her baby is born, as she struggles mightily to keep it happy and keep herself from losing her sanity.
Much as Polanski did with Mia Farrow’s character in “Rosemary’s Baby,” Farr toys around with the uncertainty and paranoia of an isolated woman whose fears may be self-generated. As Kate, Poesy slides convincingly from the garden-variety trepidation of a first-time mother-to-be to a white sheet of postpartum sleeplessness and panic. The audience knows more about what’s really going on than her husband does, but Farr operates well in the discomfiting space of a mom who doesn’t take naturally to the role. Society is suspicious of the unhappy parent, so it follows that Kate’s state of mind comes under question.
In most respects, however, the Polanski parallels underline the pic’s shortcomings. Though Farr and d.p. Ed Rutherford do their best to cast an atmospheric pallor over Kate and Justin’s apartment, “The Ones Below” lacks the sustained menace of living a thin wall — or, in this case, a hardwood floor — away from hostile figures. At 87 minutes, the film is a model of genre economy, but there’s precious little flesh on those bones, with the only signs of wit coming from Morrissey’s thundering belligerence as a businessman who’s used to getting his way. Even his head turns are dramatic, like a villain’s swiveling armchair.
Ultimately, Farr bets all his chips on a series of third-act rug pulls that seem totally ridiculous at first blush and only mildly ridiculous at second. Viewers may puzzle over the twists for a while — and maybe poke a hole or three — but mainly because “The Ones Below” leaves no more lasting impression. At best, it’s Polanski in the pinch.