UK TV review: The Girl Before
Ivan Radford | On 19, Dec 2021
Landlords with strict terms and conditions are nothing new in today’s generation rent era. From no pets to no shoes on the carpet, everyone’s had – or knows someone who’s had – to abide by restrictions in order to live somewhere. But what if you couldn’t bring any of your personal items in to decorate the place? What if you had to answer probing questions to get the shower to work in the morning? What if you had to give your own privacy in exchange for affordable rent? That’s the challenge facing Jane (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), as she passes the stringent approval process to move into One Folgate Street. It’s also the challenge facing Emma (Jessica Plummer), the girl before, who lived at the house three years ago.
This four-part BBC drama follows Jane, a high-flying businesswoman, as she finds an unexpected kind of solace in the austere minimalism of the home. Designed by architect Edward Monkford (David Oyelowo), it’s designed to meet the needs of its tenants but to an exacting degree – they each have to live up to the high standards they set themselves, as the artificial intelligence running the lights and temperature learns and records their behaviour, mood and even ethical and social viewpoints.
For Jane, it’s a question of stripping out the unnecessary and living in a place where each day is a blank slate – something that has an appeal, given the trauma in her past that she’s rather forget. For Emma, it’s a chance to live in a place of safety and security, after a robbery in her old flat – plus a chance to put her relationship with boyfriend Simon to the test.
As the guy holding the key – and subsiding their affordable rent with free personal data – you’d be forgiven for expecting Edward to be a sinister figure, but David Oyelowo plays the mininrmlist designer with a fascinating, enigmatic depth. He’s at once a staunch perfectionist with an unhealthily precise streak – his relationships are, Jane quips, “semi-detached” – and a grieving artist who has found comfort in removing distractions and memories from his sight. Is he a victim of his own personal tragedies? Or a tormentor paying his exacting standards forward?
The fun lies in see Oyelowo play with our expectations and understanding of his character, as he emerges as principled and coolly logical even as he attempts to express affection through non-spontaneous romantic gestures. Ever since Spooks, Oyelowo has been charismatic screen presence, and that charisma turns Edward into someone who’s as vulnerable as he is unsettling.
It’s a treat to see Gugu Mbatha-Raw given a leading role to sink her teeth into as well, and she doesn’t disappoint, capturing Jane’s growing unease as she tries to learn the right way to learn in the house, and finds herself increasingly consumed by wondering what happened to Emma all those years ago. Jessica Plummer is equally brilliant as the unknowing previous resident, and director Lisa Brühlmann jumps back and forth between their timelines throughout the first two of four episodes, drawing out the similarities between the women while never quite letting us get a confidence footing.
The immaculate production design, too, echoes that unnerving feeling, with a muted palette that gradually seeps into the costumes of the women, while the visuals become more and more claustrophobic the more time we spend in the this almost oppressively regimented residence. Are either, or both, of them in danger? And is history about to repeat itself? With a twisting script based on the novel by author JP Delaney and a steady pace that quietly ramps up the tension, The Girl Before is beautifully acted psychology thriller that’s well worth moving in with.
The Girl Before is available on BBC iPlayer until December 2022