There is something incredibly fascinating about Stacey Gregg’s feature film debut, the connection between its leads in Andrea Riseborough and Niamh Dornan is strikingly lovely, yet off. It’s inherently unsettling, much like the film’s title, Here Before. Gregg’s work wastes no time, it’s snappy and to the point, while leaving large amounts of room for one’s mind to wonder. It delivers a fine balance of mystery covered with vivid strokes of realism.
When a new family moves in next door, Laura (Riseborough) strikes an immediate bond with their young daughter Megan (Dornan). Not long before, she suffered the tragic loss of her daughter, Josie, and with the arrival of Megan, undesirable memories begin to stir. Laura becomes obsessed with Megan, causing a rift between the two neighboring houses as she is banned from seeing her.
Full of enchanting imagery, Gregg showcases a cinematic eye as she and cinematographer Chloë Thomson capture some vividly arresting images. The fractured nature of Andrea Riseborough’s Laura reminds of Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and the deep-seated grief felt after the loss of a child. Although it dips its toes into the psychological, it doesn’t attempt to go nearly as far into the depths of horror. Here Before is more of a minimalist drama that is possessed by a mystery so bold, and so unpredictable that one can’t help but eagerly await its revelations and boy, does it pay off.
Ultimately, Here Before is a tale of obsession, told through an unsettling lens. The strange similarities between Laura’s daughter and Megan begin to convince her and the audience of something supernatural. It’s a juggling act that is dealt in a sophisticated, well-crafted manner as it teases the truth, but doesn’t explicitly say it. Gregg’s film is profoundly intense and emotionally stirring, as one is guided by its serene cinematography that matches the unsettled nature of its characters. Additionally, another vital part of the film is its setting, a suburban town in Northern Ireland. Heavily influenced by Gregg’s upbringing, it’s almost as if the town were a character itself, or perhaps their semi-detached house which acts as a union of the two, but also a barrier.
Andrea Riseborough is terrific, her overwhelming fears almost permeate through her eyes. It’s in her looks that she says the most; not through words, but through glances and brief ticks of emotion evoked through her eyes. Gregg’s exploration of the depths of her trauma in Laura lead to some shocking turns, and some absolutely spine-chilling and unnerving moments. Pairing Riseborough with Thomson’s cinematography, the film guides its spectators into some scary, immovable corners. At times, when her grief rises, it can be very intense, but that isn’t all the film goes for. There are many tender junctures, creating vital chemistry between family members and neighbors.
One can’t help but slip into a trance as they become unaware of what is real and what is Laura’s grief-filled fantasy. Supernatural ideas of reincarnation run throughout, it’s deceivingly bold with aesthetic choices at times. Leading the audience down a path of thinking its a psychological horror, but really it’s a portrait of grief and what it does to someone so lost. That aspect of Here Before reminds of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which likewise leads one to believe in it being a supernatural tale. Until the charade is broken, leaving one to determine the very reality of it all.