Tech-Noir Thriller The Girl Before Glitches With Muddled Storytelling
Novel adaptation struggles to separate two parallel tales.
The Girl Before. Available now on HBO Max.
Oh masochism, thy name is woman. At least, that's the case in The Girl Before, HBO Max's new suspense drama, in which the pretty and well-educated female characters indulge themselves with a steady romantic diet of liars, manipulators, sadists, control freaks and murderers, then put themselves in thrall to totalitarian houses. That's right, houses. Would you knowingly rent a computerized house that prohibited pictures, ornaments, carpets, rugs, books, magazines and about 200 other perfectly ordinary items?
Perhaps more importantly—well, perhaps; sorting out the various levels of preposterous tomfoolery in The Girl Before is a complex business—would you date the architect-owner of such a house? The women of The Girl Before clamor for the attentions of their landlord, who they consider not only charming but philosophically well-grounded. "You can see his point," observes one with admiration. "He's a minimalist architect. If you design something for a certain way of living, why let people just do what they want with it?"
The Girl Before is based on the 2016 novel of the same name by British suspense writer JP Delaney (who, with British screenwriter Marissa Lestrade, wrote the adaptation). A joint production with BBC One, it aired in Great Britain last year, where critics mostly liked it. Which is why we threw all their TV critics overboard along with that tea.
The show follows the parallel stories of two young women (Emma, played by Jessica Plummer, and Jane, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who live in a highly wired but otherwise austerely designed house at One Folgate Street in London—but three years apart. Each of them is smitten not only by the house but by its cryptic owner Edward (David Oyelowo, Star Wars: Rebels), who denies there's anything unusual about his buildings. "I don't actually think of myself as a minimalist," he says. "When you relentlessly eradicate everything unnecessary or imperfect, it's surprising how little is left."
Except computer glitches, that is. Showers, stove burners and lights turn themselves on and off at random times, sometimes inconveniently, sometimes a wee bit more ominously than that. The house's data monitors—which Edward assures the women will only capture "almost nothing Google or Facebook wouldn't know about you" (really, not exactly a comforting thought)—turn out to be a leviathan bank of blinking, beeping computers carefully concealed in a massive underground storage area. Though there are occasional hints of a supernatural presence in One Folgate, they're all red herrings; though The Girl Before offers a goodly number of allusions to The Haunting, particularly when it comes to past deaths in the house, it really owes more to the libidinous AI running amok through Julie Christie's house in Demon Seed.
Red herrings, however, are axiomatic in suspense films. What drives The Girl Before off the rails, distressingly early in its interminable four-hour running time, is a simple incomprehension of movie/TV storytelling grammar by the filmmakers. The suspense is driven by the similarity in the stories of Emma and Jane. They're both rising young and pretty business executives, seemingly with bright futures but both concealing fractures in their souls (Emma had a terrifying encounter with a knife-wielding burglar; Jane, a late-term miscarriage) that leave them vulnerable to manipulation.
Each of them winds up dating the gruff, stony-hearted Edward after identically artless propositions ("I'd like to have a relationship with you") followed by identically boorish promises that their hookups will be devoid of "all the clutter of conventional relationships" like flowers, candlelight dinners, or other romantic gestures, and will end as soon as anybody (especially Edward) decides they're bored. Through split scene effects, we even see that he's giving the women the same gifts.
I haven't read Delany's book, but I'm told by friends who have that the women's stories are mostly kept separate, chapter by chapter, so it's not difficult to keep track of what's being done to whom. That's not the case in the TV show, where the stories are cross-cut so frequently, even within scenes, that it becomes difficult to tell which woman's story you're watching—especially when the two of them have such similar appearances. As the shows progress and they begin mucking around with their hairstyles, difficult morphs into near-impossible and all the doppelganger gimmickry makes it feel like you're sitting through every scene twice. Which, as any good minimalist can tell you, is about 1.5 times too many.