Content warning: sexual assault
At 1 Folgate Street stands a house like no other. The tall gray facade leads to a massive interior. The house is all concrete structures and hard lines, decorated in a striking minimal style. The vibe is intense and foreboding. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that this house is the main character of “The Girl Before.”
Adapted from JP Delaney’s book of the same name, HBO Max’s “The Girl Before” is a psychological thriller that explores mature topics such as grief and trauma. It focuses on the mysteriously minimalistic house and its enigmatic architect, Edward Monkford (David Oyelowo, “Selma”). Edward rents out the house at 1 Folgate Street for an extremely affordable rate, but it’s not available to just anyone. Potential tenants must answer an odd questionnaire (sample query: would you sacrifice yourself to save 10 innocent people?), pass a personal interview with Monkford and agree to over 200 rules while actually living in the house (no children, no messes, no books, no pets, no possessions, etc.). Tenants must also agree to have data about their living habits calculated by the house’s Big Brother-esque control system and submit to its regular check-ins. Overwhelming? Apparently not to Emma (Jessica Plummer, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”), her boyfriend Simon (Ben Hardy, “EastEnders”) and, three years after them, Jane (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “Loki”).
Emma and Jane have much more in common than just living in the same house. Both women agreed to move to 1 Folgate Street after suffering traumas: Jane, the stillbirth of her child, and Emma, a burglary and sexual assault. Both women desperately seek a sense of control in their life. Oh, and most importantly: The two women look almost exactly the same. As Jane becomes romantically involved with Edward — who gets creepier by the minute (comparing people to buildings is an automatic red flag) — she starts putting the pieces together about the house’s previous tenants and their fates.
The story flips back and forth between Emma and Jane’s timelines seamlessly; the long, sweeping shots inside the house transition between the two women’s lives, turning the stories into a dance that draws out parallels beautifully. The show’s cinematography highlights the sheer isolation that the house evokes, marking it as a kind of prison despite its beauty.
Despite only being four episodes long, the show fleshes the characters out well, due in no small part to the brilliant acting all around. Beyond its depiction of a creepy house and its strangely similar occupants, “The Girl Before” contains a more central theme of coping with loss. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one or the loss of a part of the character’s identity, the viewer watches each character’s grieving process. That loss mostly explains everyone’s actions, whether it’s Emma’s increasingly erratic behavior and frequent breakdowns or Edward’s desire to court two women who look almost identical to his late wife. (He even uses the exact same phrases in conversation with them.)
JP Delaney’s book begins with four quotes about repetition. The most striking to me was one by Andy Warhol: “My fascination with letting images repeat and repeat — or in film’s case ‘run on’ — manifests my belief that we spend much of our lives seeing without observing.” Given the similarities between Emma and Jane, as well as the presence of Edward in both their lives, the motif of repetition is hard to miss. Warhol’s quote then seems to comment on the characters rather than the viewers. The characters in this story must see this cycle of repetition for what it is and use their better judgment to escape it.
“The Girl Before” is a beautifully adapted piece of work. Beneath all the elements that contribute to its nature as a psychological thriller — cinematography, set production, acting — another message rings true: You are more than what you have been through.
Daily Arts Contributor Swara Ramaswamy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.