David Oyelowo plays a psychopath architect whose tenants must abide by hundreds of rules
To get everyone in the festive mood here’s The Girl Before (BBC One), a four-part thriller that brings together one of the most potent British fantasies, finding an affordable stylish one-bedroom rental property in London, with some of our deepest fears. Enigmatic architect Edward Monkford (David Oyelowo) has created a Kevin McCloud fantasyland called One Folgate Street, a grey cube with almost no visible fixtures or fittings, “like an art gallery or something”, as one prospective tenant says. For some, it is a high-tech minimalist dream home. Others will find it more like a prison. Certainly, if you’d ever dreamt of role-playing the last days of the Third Reich, you wouldn’t have to do much set dressing.
The action unfolds in parallel timeline. We meet Jane Cavendish (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young lawyer being shown around this unusual property. Monkford, quite transparently a psychopath, offers the house at a discount rent, but in exchange the tenants must abide by hundreds of rules: no books, no refurbishments, no magazines, no coasters. Also, the house is “automated”, which is to say everything can be externally controlled using data gathered by external sensors. If that sounds creepy, it is. But, despite these strict rules, there is no shortage of applicants. Monkford is particular about who he chooses. The house has been unoccupied for three years when Jane looks round.
In the other timeline we meet “the girl before”, Emma (Jessica Plummer), who moved in with her boyfriend Simon (Ben Hardy) three years previously. She is uncannily similar in appearance to Jane; Monkford obviously has a type. As Jane learns what befell Emma, Emma discovers more about why Monkford came to build this strange house in the first place. They both find themselves drawn to the architect, who is given to blunt pronouncements like “never apologise for someone you love: makes you look like a prick”, which are easily mistaken for charismatic honesty. Both women have trauma in their recent past, which makes them vulnerable to a calculating outsider.
The Girl Before has been adapted by the author JP Delaney from his bestselling 2018 thriller of the same name. At points, it is admirably sinister. The house is truly horrible, like a Bond villain’s sauna, a tomb-like space whose brushed-smooth surfaces urge flight. Oyelowo’s performance has plenty of muted menace, and Mbatha-Raw is convincing as a woman intelligent enough to realise something’s amiss but who is sucked into Monkford’s vortex all the same, especially as she learns that they have more in common than they might think.
But while the dual narrative structure creates a sense of foreboding and of history repeating itself, it comes at the price of undermining some of the dramatic tension. Every time the claustrophobia builds, we are thrown back into another timeline. Perhaps because the house is one of the stars, sometimes things feel a little static. The director, Lisa Bruhlmann, cut her teeth on Killing Eve, and at times you can see echoes of that series’ more kinetic approach, as she tries to bring all the drab concrete to life. It’s only partly successful. Over coffee with Jane, Edward reveals what we take to be his philosophy. “People aren’t so different from buildings, it seems to me,” he says. “It’s all too easy to accumulate the unnecessary.” But in drama, as in a building, a little ornamentation can make all the difference.