A grief-stricken woman forms an unhealthy obsession with her new neighbour’s daughter in Here Before.
It’s unsurprising that Here Before opens with a tragedy. The whole film is informed by longing and grief for a girl that dies in a car accident in the film’s opening moments. And even though Laura (Andrea Riseborough) goes about her days – dropping off her teenage son Tadgh (Lewis McAskie) at school, attending spin class, making family dinners and generally maintaining a pleasant, albeit non-sexual life with husband Brendan (Jonjo O’Neill) – there’s a clear absence in her life.
This all changes when a new family moves in next door. Marie (Eileen O’Higgins) and Chris (Martin McCann) are absent parents to their young daughter Megan (Niamh Dornan), to whom Laura quickly grows fond of. Initially it’s like a surrogate parent relationship: Laura keeps an eye out for Megan when Marie and Chris forget to pick her up at school, or when Megan is out playing by herself in the yard.
Over time, however, Megan’s mannerisms strike Laura as eerily familiar, prompting an obsession that escalates as Laura becomes increasingly convinced that Megan is the reincarnation of her dead daughter.
Here Before is a slow-burn drama with some thriller elements. The film is fronted by another strong performance by Riseborough, who has quietly emerged as a significant genre performer over the last few years (The Grudge, Possessor, Black Mirror’s “Crocodile”). Laura is an interior character; she doesn’t often say what she feels. The role therefore requires Riseborough to convey her concern, her interest and her doubt in Megan in raised eyebrows and sidelong, wistful glances. Even when the film’s pacing meanders and recycles her anxiety in the second act, Riseborough is never anything less than captivating.
The film surrounding her is pervasively gloomy and dour by design. It’s baked into the sombre production design and embodied by the Northern Ireland fall/winter, which renders everything mildly miserable-looking. Characters are constantly caught in the rain or hopping into cars under threatening grey skies and the conjoined split-house where the characters live is oppressively tight and slightly run down. All of these elements combine to convey a sense of claustrophobia, poverty and malaise. It’s as though Laura’s physical environment is a physical rendering of her bland, repetitive life as she sleepwalks through life after her daughter’s death.
Unfortunately the film doesn’t quite have a handle on its message. Here Before doesn’t have much of note to say about grief or depression (see last year’s The Swerve for a film that’s unafraid of embracing that darkness). More problematically, as the film progresses, it leans into its more sensational elements, particularly when Laura latches onto the reincarnation idea as an excuse to justify her increasingly erratic actions.
This reincarnation plot line sadly doesn’t partner well with the straightforward story of a grieving mother who hasn’t recovered from her loss. Because Here Before falls somewhere in the middle, and is unwilling to commit to either, the film simply plods along until it reaches a mildly ridiculous ending. By the time the truth about Megan and Laura’s relationship is revealed, any interest in the mystery has almost completely eroded.
It’s a shame because in addition to strong technical elements, Riseborough is doing solid work with uneven material. But even she cannot overcome the challenges presented by the repetitive, messy screenplay, which never settles on what it’s trying to say. As a result, it says very little at all.