‘Here Before’ Review: Andrea Riseborough Stars in a Lost-Child Ghost Story (Or Is It?) Infused With the Spirit of Nicolas Roeg
It’s easy — and understandable — for a movie about parents coping with the death of a child to slide into a glum depressive haze. Yet one granddaddy of the genre is neither glum nor depressing; it turns parental despair into something spine-tingling. “Don’t Look Now,” Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 classic of fractured anxiety, may or may not be a ghost story, but it’s most assuredly haunted. And you could say the same thing about “Here Before,” in which Andrea Riseborough plays Laura, a distraught mother in a small town in Northern Ireland who begins to suspect that her dead daughter has been reincarnated. Has Josie, who was killed in a car accident several years before (her father was at the wheel), reappeared as the new girl next door? Or is Laura making connections that aren’t there as a way to ease the impossibility of her burden?
The writer-director, Stacey Gregg, orchestrates the minimalist version of a Roegian atmosphere. She uses strikingly framed long and medium shots to establish the hint of an invisible design lurking just beyond the surface of things. The tension that drives “Here Before” is our curiosity as to whether or not the film is taking place in the world of the uncanny. In a way we want it to be, because that would make it scary fun; in another way we don’t want it to be, because that would make it corny scary fun. Gregg poises nearly every scene on the knife edge of is-it-real-or-is-it-all-in-Laura’s-head?
It’s Laura who convinces us that she may be seeing the spirit of her late daughter, yet Andrea Riseborough is the furthest thing from a gothic nightmare actor. Her Laura is more like a character out of Antonioni, an everyday train wreck with a dread that just about seeps through her pale skin. The most artful and fascinating thing about “Here Before,” and it takes a confident filmmaker to pull this off, is that it sets up scenes that totally hook us, like one in which Laura and her husband, Brendan (Jonjo O’Neill), are seated in their car and he suggests that it may be time for her to talk to “someone” (i.e., a therapist) again, and she tells him to “Save it for your mum,” and just as it’s building to a dramatic thrust the scene cuts off. It’s clear that Gregg could have supplied the thrust — but instead, intentionally, she leaves us hanging, kind of like life. Laura and Brendan have a teenage son, the unruly, self-centered Tadhg (Lewis McAskie), who likes to stir the pot. The tensions among the three of them have begun to simmer and boil over, and that’s before another family moves into the apartment that occupies the other half of their house.
The new family has a daughter, Megan (Niamh Dornan), freckled and eager, who’s about the same age as Josie was when she died. Picking up Tadhg after school, Laura spies Megan waiting for her mom, who is nowhere in sight. So she gives her a ride home. And feels an eerie connection to her. And then she starts to see clues. Like when they go to an empty playground, and Megan says that they’ve been there before. Or the girl’s diary, which contains her stick-figure drawing of two parents with a boy and a girl. Or the way that her name is crossed out above her school coat hook, replaced by the name of…
“Here Before” keeps us off guard, and all the more awake because of it. Yet it’s a drama of delicate glints and feints; you might wish there were more scenes like the one with that diary. The only glimpse we get in flashback of the late Josie is a recurring shot of Laura pulling off the girl’s green headband from behind. We have to imagine what she looks like — she’s there in our mind’s eye, and also not — and that’s a way of putting the audience in the shoes of parents who feel their child’s memory frozen in time yet slipping away. The escalating conflicts between the two families have a class-based undercurrent — Megan’s father, Chris (Martin McCann), with his tattoos and outwardly gruff demeanor (he’s actually quite sweet), is viewed suspiciously by the other clan. And those conflicts come to a head over the question of who’s in true possession of Megan.
I had a paradoxical feeling watching “Here Before.” Like the early films of Lynne Ramsay (“Ratcatcher”), the movie, by design, is a tad too oblique to make a commercial splash on the indie circuit. Yet Stacey Gregg, whose feature filmmaking debut this is, has what I would characterize as a hugely accessible and transportable technique. I could see her continuing down the pinpoint road of minor-key dread, or making an unabashed genre film that blows a lot of people away.
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