Though she sees her dead daughter Josie everywhere she goes, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is accustomed to her own bereavement. It has become commonplace in her life, dull even when pervasive. Massive, tragic, and immediate grief has receded into practiced wistfulness and well-worn hurt. Her husband, Brendan (Jonjo O’Neill), and son, Tadgh (Lewis McAskie), are similarly adjusted, grief simmering low, though both have their own ways of coping with their loss. The passage of time has allowed their lives to settle and their wounds to heal, but tension still smolders below the surface.
Those wounds are scratched open when a new family moves into the house attached to theirs; younger and less ravaged by life, their sweet daughter Megan (Niamh Dornan) reminds Laura far too acutely of her own. The two families exchange awkward, weary smiles and inherently understand the class difference that separates them, straight-edge Brendan making an off-hand but acerbic remark about Chris (Martin McCann) and his sleeve of tattoos.
A momentary offer of kindness by Laura — giving Megan a lift home when she catches her waiting alone outside school — results in an odd comment by Megan, who remembers the cemetery where Josie, Laura’s daughter, is buried as they drive past. The observation is particularly strange because Megan has never lived in this town before, but Laura just quietly files it away for later in the way that mothers often do. Initially, their interactions are a product of the desperate need Laura has to connect to a child that mirrors her own and of the desire Megan has for a more present mother. But when such unsettling occurrences only become more frequent, an uncanniness settles over the film. It all leaves Laura wondering if her dead daughter has merged with Megan in some sort of soul transference or equivalent paranormal event.
Obsessing over the young girl next door, Laura seems unhinged, but her madness is founded in something tangible, encouraged by the behavior of those she is fixating on and the actual secrets being kept from her. She has repressed her grief for so long that when it finally comes bursting out of her it turns to delusion, and even though Laura feels like she is arbitrarily going insane, most of what she reacts to is either real or a misinterpretation of the truth. The way her grief tears at the mind is interesting; it creates all sorts of cracks and fissures. Riseborough is at her best here, layered and unbalanced. It would be difficult to imagine anyone else in such a quietly disturbed role.
Here Before is a visually precise and breathtaking film: minimalist and somewhat bleak and cold even when it looks warm. The camerawork throughout (by Chloë Thompson) does a perfect job of making this small corner of suburbia in Northern Ireland seem just as otherworldly as it is banal and familiar. It feels weighted in the inexplicable: every space is haunted, threaded with death and memory and grief. That is most felt in the shots that linger and the way Laura gets sad staring into the room that once belonged to her daughter, her eyes falling upon something that carries obvious but unspoken importance.
This feature debut by Stacey Gregg is a slow-burn. The narrative unfolds at a restrained but never glacial pace; it’s agonizing and lethargic in the way that grief tends to be, with tension that is always strung tight. Steeped in melancholy, the script is generally lovely and elevated in the hands of Riseborough and a skilled supporting cast. There are places where it might be too vague, but overall the film is impressive and profoundly affecting. As quiet and meditative as it may be, Here Before is a meticulously terrifying unspooling of grief and the madness it comes with.