And who is my neighbour? Luke 10:29
I didn’t think I’d be doing a film review so quickly after my June post but my husband and I were spooked by a psychological thriller we came across by chance. As the villain was a third culture character, I started writing!
A piece of advice I was given when I arrived in The Netherlands was to introduce yourself right away to your neighbours. I did just that. To the left of our front door is an elderly Dutch couple. My daughter loves having them over for coffee as this is a perfect chance for a captive audience. We have helped one another out on numerous occasions and one of the first things the woman ever said to me was…
“My husband worked for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I raised young children by myself when I was there. If you ever need any help, please ask. I know what it’s like to be an expatriate mother,”
On the right side there used to be a family not unlike mine; cross cultural with a multilingual only child. They moved out and Amsterdam hipsters moved in. They’re not friendly at all. They ignore us and make as much construction noise as they want, even in the evening. There is no sorry offered for any rubbish or transgressions from their workmen. Neighbours I remember from girlhood include a Dutch expatriate couple in France, an American man who started waving a gun and screaming in our dead end street in Virginia, a Kurdish man and his Cockney wife in Ankara and many people who also worked for the United Nations clustered in a close we lived on in France. These included a simultaneous interpreter, a bilingual secretary, a Mexican family, a French woman who never paid her rent and my first third culture friend; a little boy my age from Sudan and Tanzania.
The tagline for The Ones Below asks the viewer how well they know their neighbours. The British couple at the heart of the story do not have any to begin with. Justin and Kate live in a converted flat in London. Kate is pregnant and apprehensive about the birth. Not because she doesn’t want the baby but because it is clear she comes from a troubled background. She lost her brother. His memory is important to her. She has a special and telling photo of him and is keen to visit his grave site on the anniversary of his death. Her mother is emotionally cold and Kate grows increasingly impatient with having anything to do with her. I felt straightaway that she was concerned with passing on a particular inheritance.
One day they come home to see the flat below them is occupied. There are two pairs of shoes outside the front door. This habit was picked up by the British husband Jon who worked in China for 10 years. He had a Chinese wife who, according to the one he has now, was very beautiful but infertile. She was therefore discarded. His new trophy wife Teresa is glowing and pregnant.
Jon and Teresa are invited upstairs for dinner and the evening quickly turns sinister. Jon is bored and aggressive, asking Kate and Justin why they took so long to have children.
“You felt able to love,” he judges
It will turn out that it is he and his wife who are not capable of love. Kate is right to think long and hard about bringing life into the world. Most people don’t give it a second thought and most women in the world don’t have the luxury. Teresa desperately wants to be a mother as that is the only identity she can have.
“Until I was pregnant, I didn’t know why I was alive,”
If she isn’t to become a mother married to such a man, then what will become of her?
“My mother was this kind of Finnish hippy I guess you’d say. She met this English guy in London and they had this crazy, passionate affair and she had me. And then he disappeared with some American woman. Mum and I travelled everywhere together. She called me her backpack.”
She says this smiling as if it’s quirky and cute but it sent chills down my spine. Children aren’t backpacks, they are undeveloped human beings with very different needs to adults. But if you treat them as such then the results are manifest in Teresa who secretly keeps drinking glass after glass of wine when her husband isn’t looking. She of course gets drunk and falls down the stairs and loses her baby. The new neighbours take no responsibility and are not accountable, blaming Kate and Justin instead. And they take revenge in the most violent of ways.
UNESCO defines global citizenship as a sense of belonging to a broader community and common humanity. It emphasises political, economic, social and cultural interdependency and interconnectedness between the local, the national and the global. It says nothing about relocation. Any child or adult can live so, navigating from a secure dominant culture. But I’ve noticed that people use the term to define themselves living everywhere and that anywhere is home. Jon and Teresa are at the extreme end of the new and emerging definition, definitely not the first. My husband and I guffawed somewhat at Jon mentioning all the money he made in Frankfurt as a banker. After Brexit, Frankfurt was named as the city where London banks could be installed. They are global citizens who indeed go where they want when they want. Money is their immunity and forget about tax. They take, they don’t give. They use and throw away. They detach, don’t attach. And when the going gets tough, they get up and leave. Jon and Teresa kidnap Justin and Kate’s newborn son Billy. And what of it? Babies and children are legally bought or trafficked all around the globe as I write these very lines. They welcome him into their fold by erasing his name.
This is the last line of the film. They are truly terrifying citizens whose shades are in all of us who are internationally mobile.