Much in the vein of “The Girl on the Train” or “The Woman in the Window,” HBO Max’s new limited series “The Girl Before” depicts the aftereffects of trauma taking place within the mind of a troubled woman. Also like those projects, it’s neither as acute as it thinks it is or as fun as viewers may want it to be. This British show — which is adapted by J. P. Delaney from his novel and which aired on BBC One overseas late last year — goes to extremes, but viewers may be forgiven for not following it to its conclusion.
Here, Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Jane, increasingly isolated from the world. In the present day, Jane is living in a strange, modernist home — one whose residents must agree to a set of strict conditions set by the building’s architect (David Oyelowo). In flashbacks, a previous resident (Jessica Plummer) lives out the last days of her life at the same home along with her partner (Ben Hardy), replaying a violent attack she suffered.
The toggling timelines generate some interest, with the ramping-up of similarities between Jane’s and Emma’s lives in the house Oyelowo’s Edward built. And the performances are strong across the board, with Mbatha-Raw’s presence a reminder that this naturally sympathetic performer has been somewhat underserved of late — most notably on “The Morning Show,” where she similarly suffered a trauma, one whose aftermath the show couldn’t figure out how to depict. Oyelowo, too, conjures both menace and intrigue as a figure dependent upon control.
The show could have used some of Edward’s focus; the clean, minimalist lines of Edward’s architecture exist within a story that’s anything but tidy. The show’s narrative excess comes to seem wasteful and silly — a story about a manipulative architect who wants to help design the lives of the women who live in his construction, and it’s a little boring? And its leveraging of violence against women, including rape, to tell a story that isn’t really worth the time or emotional commitment viewers are asked to make is unfortunate. In all, fans of the book club-thriller genre would be well served by skipping “The Girl Before.”
“The Girl Before” premieres Thursday, Feb. 10 on HBO Max.