Here Before – Film Review
by Frank L.
Written and Directed by Stacey Gregg
Stars – Andrea Riseborough, Jonjo O’Neill, Niamh Dornan
Stacey Gregg is well established in the world of theatre as a playwright. With this film, she has finally taken the plunge to write and direct her first feature film. The movement from theatre to film is a well-trodden path, but they are quite different genres and not all are successful. There are often complaints of the film feeling too static or cerebral. Thankfully, this is not the case here.
The location for the film is an average suburb. At the top of a hill, in a cul-de-sac, there are a pair of identical semi-detached houses. Because they are elevated they are separate and distant from their neighbours. The plot concerns the residents of these two houses.
In one house, lives Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Brendan (Jonjo O’Neill) with their son Tadhg (Lewis McAskie). In the other, there are new arrivals, Chris (Martin McCann) and Marie (Eileen O’Higgins) and their daughter Megan (Niamh Dornan). From the start, Gregg shows that Laura is in a reflective mood. She ponders and pauses over a discarded child’s plastic windmill which she unearths while tidying up leaves in her garden. There is something playing on her mind.
Meanwhile, she gradually gets to know Megan as she attends the same school as Tadhg. She also comes to believe from various things that Megan says that she is somehow in an unspecified way the reincarnation of her daughter Josie who was killed as a passenger in a car driven by Brendan. This idea of the return of Josie becomes an obsession. Inevitably there are tensions between Laura and Brendan which in Laura’s case are exacerbated by the sheer presence next door of Megan. Laura’s fascination with Megan gradually comes to irk Chris and Marie and they draw a line. The tensions rise as Laura’s obsession with Megan intensifies.
Riseborough has a daunting part as she has to portray the grief of a mother over her recently deceased daughter while also portraying her need to appear “matter of fact” when in the company of Megan. It is an exceedingly challenging role and she balances the complexity with insight. She is fortunate that Niamh Dornan is such a skilled young actor as Megan. Megan throughout remains an innocent but the manner in which she drops asides which play on Laura’s mind makes you wonder. O’Neill is a dutiful husband doing his best but of course, he is in a vulnerable position having been involved in the accident which killed Josie. McCann and O’Higgins are fine as the parents of Megan and make an entirely credible couple next door, given Laura’s obsessive behaviour toward their daughter. McAskie has the role of a bolshie teenager which he plays with aplomb.
There is much to admire in the film including the long shots of the pair of houses and their overall location on the verge of the countryside, along with the impressive musical score. Riseborough at all times holds your attention. However, as a psychological drama, it does not quite work. This may be because Josie and Megan are of a similar age so it is not feasible that Megan could be the re-embodiment of Josie.
That said, Gregg has created a serious drama that centres on a mother’s grief for a dead child and that grief takes on a form that those near her do not comprehend. It may well be a phenomenon that is not considered often enough in everyday life as people for whatever reason do not wish to become entangled with a mother’s grief. Gregg has created a challenging film that despite its flaws is thought-provoking.