The Girl Before on BBC One review: Flashy new drama takes an intriguing premise and squanders it

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw  (BBC/42/Amanda Searle)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw (BBC/42/Amanda Searle)

This four part series has a lot going for it. Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and David Oyelowo, based on the best-selling novel by JP Delaney and directed by Lisa Bruhlmann of Killing Eve fame, it’s sleek and stylised and has the potential to be a compelling, noirish psychological thriller. It falls quite a long way short of that.

The plot centres around Edward Monkford (Oyelowo), a control-freak architect who has designed a beautiful modern house, One Folgate Street, which he is renting out for below market rate to, say the estate agents, “people who live there the way he intended”. There are over two hundred rules potential inhabitants must follow, some pedestrian - no books, no children, no ornaments, no planting in the garden – others, one suspects, more sinister. “My house makes demands of people,” says Monkford when interviewing potential inhabitants. “We gather data to improve the user experience.” Intriguing.

Emma (Former Eastenders actress and I’m A Celebrity star Jessica Plummer) and Simon (played adequately by Ben Hardy), a young couple who were recently caught in a burglary by which Emma is traumatised, are accepted. Another timeline is then introduced with Jane Cavendish (Mbatha-Raw), a lawyer who has just returned to work after having a stillborn baby, who moves in subsequently to their departure. The two timelines interweave deftly and elegantly and the conceit is a clever one with lots of interesting parallels to be drawn with the data harvesting techniques of the big social media companies.

Among other sinister portents, Jane discovers that Emma died in the house. She starts a relationship with Monkford, who at the beginning of the first episode is depicted washing what we presume is blood from the stone floor. We discover his wife, who also died in the house, bears a striking resemblance to Emma. It’s all rather clever and interesting.

Ben Hardy and Jessica Plumber as Simon and Emma (BBC/42/Amanda Searle)
Ben Hardy and Jessica Plumber as Simon and Emma (BBC/42/Amanda Searle)

But the bad news is that there are problems with this drama, and they are major. Plummer is, I’m sorry to say, not the most subtle of actresses - you can almost see her mind shouting messages to her face: ‘sad!’ ‘Look traumatised!’ ‘Resurgence of a bad memory!’

It’s impossible to summon any suspension of disbelief as stylised trips over the line into staged (at times, even silly) and at no point do the scenes feel like they might actually happen. The script is basic and unmemorable, and clunky in places with thuddingly obvious plot-shifters like Monkford’s PA saying to Jane on their first meeting, “Oh, Edward’s wife and son died in that house, I’m surprised he referred to that,” or Emma’s colleague saying, “Ooh, I’ve researched the house you’ve just moved into and two people died there!”

There are some great opportunities for highly charged exchanges – such as when Simon finds out Emma was sexually assaulted by the man who burgled their house, or when Monkford describes to Cavendish that he’d like a relationship with her, but it won’t be a conventional one – all of them squandered.

David Oyelowo plays control-freak architect Edward Monkford, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Jane Cavendish (BBC/42/Amanda Searle)
David Oyelowo plays control-freak architect Edward Monkford, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Jane Cavendish (BBC/42/Amanda Searle)

I’m also sorry that Mbatha-Raw, who is great as usual in this, is made to do a truly cringe-inducing sexually-charged solo dance (one of three pretty embarrassing dance routines inflicted on the female characters, none of which work at all).

It’s a shame for British TV that while the Americans (using British talent!) produce masterpieces like Succession, we’ve taken a rather brilliant premise and storyline and produced this luke-warm, unconvincing flannel of a psychological drama and served it up with fanfare as one of the top shows for the festive period. Not our finest hour.

The Girl Before premieres on BBC One and BBC iPlayer at 9pm on Sunday, December 19

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