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The Girl Before Is TV's Latest Hitchcock-Influenced Thriller… Only This One's Good

Two women, one architect, one giant stone slab of a house.
  • David Oyelowo and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in The Girl Before (Photo: Amanda Searle/HBO Max)
    David Oyelowo and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in The Girl Before (Photo: Amanda Searle/HBO Max)

    To say that TV and movies are having an Alfred Hitchcock-influenced moment would be wong, since there's never really been a "moment" when the two mediums weren't in some way influenced by the cinematic master of suspense. In ways both big and small, it's nearly impossible to make a work that deals with suspicion, dread, paranoia, shock, sinister moods, murderous conspiracies, doppelgangers, or birds without invoking his well-known silhouette. But we've recently had some rather overtly Hitchcockian projects … even if they didn't turn out to be very good.

    Netflix's The Woman in the Window — recently parodied, though not very amusingly, by Netflix itself — was based on a novel that ripped off Rear Window pretty shamelessly with its story about a woman who becomes obsessed with solving the murder she swears she saw being committed in the building across the way. Netflix had already also made the rather dubious decision to remake the Oscar-winning classic Rebecca with director Ben Wheatley and stars Armie Hammer and Lily James. The reviews were not kind.

    The promising thing about HBO Max's The Girl Before — based on the novel by J.P. Delaney — is that its Hitchcock influences aren't quite so direct. Perhaps not coincidentally, it's also a much better project than the aforementioned films. Which isn't to say that the Hitchcock allusions aren't readily apparent. If you've seen Vertigo, you'll find a lot familiar in this story of two women who are dead ringers for one another, connected by a man who appears to be obsessed with each of them. In this case, the women are also connected by a piece of minimalist architecture that becomes just as much a character as anyone flesh and blood in the series. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Jane, a single woman seeking a fresh start in London who ends up moving into a rather unusual living arrangement. The marvel of minimalist modern architecture she wants to move into would ordinarily be far too expensive for her, but she can live there if she can meet the conditions of its mercurial architect. These conditions include the completion of a detailed questionnaire ("Would you sacrifice your life to save ten innocent strangers?" is the second question) and agreeing to a complete prohibition of personal items — no books, no photos, not even coasters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the house has sat empty for three years, seemingly because no one has met the architect's conditions, and although this kind of prescripted living arrangement would be a red flag for most people, it appeals to Jane for reasons we'll soon find out.

    At the same time we see Jane touring the home, we also see a young couple, Emma and Simon (Jessica Plummer and Ben Hardy), also looking to move in. Two things quickly become apparent: one is that Jane and Emma look remarkably similar to one another. The second is that we're seeing Emma and Simon's story three years before Jane's. By now, multiple timelines have transcended being a mere trend on television; they're practically the dominant form of the medium. Good shows, bad shows, streaming shows, cable shows, dramas (mostly) and comedies (some). When a show is good — Yellowjackets has been a recent example — it's less irksome. When a show is bad, it can feel wildly unnecessary.

    The Girl Before manages to justify its parallel timelines by using the structure to disorient the viewer and blend Jane and Emma's stories into one another. Soon after each moves in, they meet the mysterious architect, Edward (David Oyelowo), who is clearly drawn to each of them. There isn't much in the way of suspense surrounding Edward. He's controlling, manipulative, and just generally peculiar, and his pursuit of both Emma and Jane feels either vaguely or specifically sinister, depending on the scene. Director Lisa Brühlmann ramps up this unease by twinning Emma and Jane's scenes so that they seem to be happening simultaneously, cutting from one to another often before we've noticed we've shifted timelines. It's clever, not as showy as you might expect, and deeply effective. By the time Jane begins to learn more of this woman Emma who lived in her house three years prior, we're already well ahead of her that they're on similarly dangerous paths.

    Adding to the sense of unease is the house itself, a minimalist design that often feels like a chameleon for whatever mood the show is going for at the moment. The cold stone and sharp right angles of the interior feel hard and sparse, and Edward's strict prohibitions against personal items keep it that way. The floating stone-slab staircase is as anxiety-producing as all floating staircases are, and the fact that multiple characters make mention of it early on brings to mind Chekhov and his gun. Films and TV shows have recently been very into using minimalist homes like this to communicate dread or a looming threat. Whether its genre junk like You Should Have Left or an instant classic like Parasite, filmmakers have been able to use these homes to great, creepy effect. In The Girl Before, the house is almost a shapeshifter as it fits the needs of the story. Sometimes it feels like an art gallery, with its inhabitants on display. It's a smart home (of course it is), and its automated locks and lights and creepily intuitive A.I. give it the feel of a high-tech prison. Sometimes it's a mausoleum for Jane, who's dealing with the recent pain of a miscarriage. Sometimes it's a fortress for Emma, who's dealing with the recent trauma of a home invasion.

    At four hour-long episodes, The Girl Before unfolds its mysteries with efficiency. By the time Jane discovers how closely she resembles Emma, she's already in too deep with both the house and (more crucially) Edward. Emma's story, locked in the past, feels more hopeless and sinister, but it benefits from a great performance by Plummer, who's tasked with some serious emotional lifting as Emma deals with the aftermath of the attack that so plagues her. Mbatha-Raw (The Morning Show) is also excellent, continuing her practically unbroken streak of being one of the most underrated actresses working today. Together, both actresses allow Brühlmann to weave a hypnotic narrative for the audience, a haunted house story that, in its better moments, does the Hitchcock legacy proud.

    The Girl Before first aired on BBC One in December 2021. All four episodes drop on HBO Max Thursday, February 10th.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Girl Before, HBO Max, Ben Hardy, David Oyelowo, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessica Plummer