his four part series has a lot going for it. Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and David Oyelowo, based on the best-selling novel by JP Delaney and directed by Lisa Bruhlmann of Killing Eve fame, it’s sleek and stylised and has the possible to be a powerful, noirish psychological thriller. It falls quite a long way short of that.
The plot centres around Edward Monkford (Oyelowo), a control-freak architect who has designed a beautiful modern house, One Folgate Street, which he is renting out for below market rate to, say the estate agents, “people who live there the way he intended”. There are over two hundred rules possible inhabitants must follow, some pedestrian – no books, no children, no ornaments, no planting in the garden – others, one suspects, more sinister. “My house makes demands of people,” says Monkford when interviewing possible inhabitants. “We gather data to enhance the user experience.” Intriguing.
Emma (Former Eastenders actress and I’m A Celebrity star Jessica Plummer) and Simon (played adequately by Ben Hardy), a young associate who were recently caught in a burglary by which Emma is traumatised, are accepted. Another timeline is then introduced with Jane Cavendish (Mbatha-Raw), a lawyer who has just returned to work after having a stillborn baby, who moves in afterward to their departure. The two timelines interweave deftly and elegantly and the conceit is a clever one with lots of interesting parallels to be drawn with the data harvesting techniques of the big social media companies.
Among other sinister portents, Jane learns that Emma died in the house. She starts a relationship with Monkford, who at the beginning of the first episode is presented washing what we presume is blood from the stone floor. We discover his wife, who also died in the house, produces a remarkable resemblance to Emma. It’s all rather clever and interesting.
But the bad news is that there are problems with this drama, and they are major. Plummer is, I’m sorry to say, not the most subtle of actresses – you can almost see her mind shouting messages to her confront: ‘sad!’ ‘Look traumatised!’ ‘Resurgence of a bad memory!’
It’s impossible to summon any suspension of disbelief as stylised trips over the line into staged (at times, already silly) and at no point do the scenes feel like they might truly happen. The script is basic and unmemorable, and clunky in places with thuddingly obvious plot-shifters like Monkford’s PA saying to Jane on their first meeting, “Oh, Edward’s wife and son died in that house, I’m surprised he referred to that,” or Emma’s colleague saying, “Ooh, I’ve researched the house you’ve just moved into and two people died there!”
There are some great opportunities for highly charged exchanges – such as when Simon finds out Emma was sexually assaulted by the man who burgled their house, or when Monkford describes to Cavendish that he’d like a relationship with her, but it won’t be a traditional one – all of them squandered.
I’m also sorry that Mbatha-Raw, who is great as usual in this, is made to do a truly cringe-inducing sexually-charged solo dance (one of three pretty embarrassing dance routines inflicted on the female characters, none of which work at all).
It’s a shame for British TV that while the Americans (using British talent!) produce masterpieces like series, we’ve taken a rather bright assumption and storyline and produced this luke-warm, unconvincing flannel of a psychological drama and served it up with fanfare as one of the top shows for the festive period. Not our finest hour.
The Girl Before premieres on BBC One and BBC iPlayer at 9pm on Sunday, December 19
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