The Girl Before review: Jessica Plummer is the highlight of unsettling JP Delaney drama on BBC One

The psychological thriller also stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and David Oyelowo
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The Girl Before is pitched somewhere between psychological thriller and domestic noir. It’s about two young women, Jane (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Emma (Jessica Plummer), who move into the same house three years apart. The four-part drama unfolds in two halves, tracing their lives and how the house changes them, with Jane slowly realising what happened to previous tenant Emma. There’s something faintly reminiscent of the Bluebeard fable about it, and any retelling of that you might care to name. In this case, though, the house isn’t a gothic castle but a hyper-minimalist architectural experiment, closely monitored by its designer and owner Edward Monkford (David Oyelowo).

Monkford insists that anyone living there must follow his strict, exacting rules: no decorations, no mess, no personal items. The house is maintained by what is in effect a sophisticated Alexa type device, which records and archives data about Emma and Jane and their living habits. It enforces Monkford’s rules, too, imposing a different structure on their lives (an electric toothbrush stops working after exactly two minutes, the shower won’t work until they take a short survey, the lights turn out at the same time each night, etc). The technology itself admittedly feels a little far-fetched at times, but that never quite matters as The Girl Before does a good job of convincing on the more important emotional truth of it all, i.e. why these two women (each trying to take control of their lives again after recent trauma) would choose to enter such a peculiar living arrangement.

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It helps that the performances are as strong as they are. David Oyelowo as the enigmatic architect Edward Monkford is the still point that centres the show; there’s an unsettling magnetism to his performance, something unnerving about him even as you can’t quite bring yourself to look away. Meanwhile, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is characteristically impressive, her part here serving as a reminder for why she should have more leading roles. First and foremost, though, The Girl Before feels like a showcase for Jessica Plummer, who more than holds her own across from her more famous co-stars: it’s difficult to talk about her character without revealing too much, but suffice to say Plummer is at the heart of (and the reason for) some of The Girl Before’s most memorable scenes.

Jessica Plummer as Emma Matthews and David Oyelowo as Edward Monkford in The Girl Before (Credit: BBC)Jessica Plummer as Emma Matthews and David Oyelowo as Edward Monkford in The Girl Before (Credit: BBC)
Jessica Plummer as Emma Matthews and David Oyelowo as Edward Monkford in The Girl Before (Credit: BBC)

The Girl Before is well-directed, too – director Lisa Brühlmann (previously of Killing Eve) offers a refined but admirably uncomplicated take on the story’s non-linear structure, making sure it elevates rather than obscures the piece. It’s a very evocative, atmospheric series, and Brühlmann does a good job of maintaining and building that mounting sense of dread – not just in terms of the plot and the characters, but how she shoots the house, walking a careful line to ensure there’s something alluring, but certainly not inviting, about its sterile minimalism. The whole series benefits from a lot of impressive design work, not just in terms of the house itself but the costumes too – there’s a nice, subtle parallel between how Jane and Emma each dress, underscoring their similarities and heightening that sense that they’re both caught in the same loop.

On the whole, then, The Girl Before is quite an impressive series: familiar in some ways, yes, but very well executed throughout. One small detail that’s easy to appreciate is how screenwriters JP Delaney – adapting his own novel – and Marissa Lestrade deliver exposition throughout; it’s one of those things that you don’t always notice when it’s done well, as it is here, but it’s always immediately obvious when it’s done poorly. Whether the series will move beyond ‘just’ being a confidently made but slightly familiar drama remains to be seen, but either way it’s likely still worth your time.

The first episode of The Girl Before airs on Sunday at 9pm on BBC One, with subsequent episodes airing across the next three nights. All four episodes of the series will be available to stream on HBO Max in the US from February 10.

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