The Little Stranger Review
After the wild success of 2015’s Room it seemed as though director Lenny Abrahamson could write his own ticket for his next project and he decided to turn to a passion project, one that he had been hoping to make even before Room came along; an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ chilling novel The Little Stranger. An excellent and rich read, Waters’ writing really brings the world of her characters to life and it was interesting to consider if Abrahamson could translate that to the big screen. However, with an impeccable sense of visuals, a faithful-to-the-book script, a cast made of exceptional talent, and a setting to die for, Abrahamson delivers on what might be one of the sleeper hits of the year.
In 1949 a country doctor, Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), is called out to the increasingly dilapidated Hundred’s Hall, home of the Ayres family overseen by Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling). When Dr. Faraday keeps visiting to treat the wartime injuries of son Roderick (Will Poulter) he becomes closer to the family and in particular to the daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) but things begin to happen that make the Ayres believe that there is something else besides them in the house, something that hates them with a fierce intensity. Meanwhile, Dr. Faraday’s own past with the house means that he may be more connected to what’s happening than he initially thought.
It becomes apparently very quickly that The Little Stranger has many things going on that make up its whole; a haunted house story, a psychological thriller, and a society period drama. There is a changing mood to the film, drawing you in - much like Domhnall Gleeson’s Dr. Faraday - which never remains for long leaving a feeling of unease. It is drenched in a sense of dread, to the point where you are made to feel as though something terrible is always around the corner, and it usually is.
A big part of that is in the way that right from the get-go Abrahamson is not afraid to use silence as his main tool, and in an age where horror movies can’t seem to go a few minutes without something going “BOO” that is something to really be savoured. The scares of the movie are more low-key than you might be expecting, it isn’t as upfront in its horror as something like The Others, but these moments are more than capable of getting under your skin and are something which works with the ambiguity of whether anything supernatural is even happening here, or if it is more mundane things being misunderstood by disturbed individuals in a lonely house.
What this film is, as the novel was before it, is a recontextualized Gothic romance and it works beautifully. Typically, in a Gothic novel you have a naïve outsider, a house, secrets, and a love story or some sense of desire as a motivation. Taking the setting from the more familiar Victorian era for this type of story to just post WWII is an interesting move and serves to both tap into the horrors of wartime - particularly with Will Poulter’s character Roderick - and also highlights that this is a time of shifting social change.
Class and society play a big part and nowhere is that more evident that in Hundreds Hall itself. An important factor of a gothic story (particularly one with a haunted house) is that the house itself has a character of its own, a tangible presence outside of just being the location, and the house here is so perfectly suited to that. Like the house, the Ayres family are fading from the kind of social position that they once held, with the rest of the country moving on from their heyday of aristocracy to the ever-emerging middle class, of which Dr. Faraday is a part of.
Dr. Faraday himself is an interesting central character. He is an outsider and an observer like so many ghost story protagonists are, particularly those in the work of M.R. James that Sarah Waters was mindful of whilst writing her book, yet there is also something more to him. As much as he tries to ingratiate himself with the Ayres’ there is a constant sense of distance between them, again emphasising the element of class in the film. It’s very telling that we never learn his first name. His manner and nature feel stiff and learned as a means to distance himself from his lower-class upbringing and the artificial nature of it means that you are just waiting for something, some burst of emotion, to break through the cracks. It is a subtle performance from Domhnall Gleeson, a calm surface concealing a constant stream of thoughts and feelings. He also serves as the sceptic in the house’s strange happenings, the one who manages to be absent when the spooky things are actually happening, but whilst that may feel like a tired cliché, once everything falls into place by the end you realise just how important a part that played in the story beyond just acting as counter balance to the more believing Ayres’.
Ruth Wilson proves to be a perfect choice for the role of Caroline, her expressive eyes broadcasting just how trapped the character feels and making her the heart of both the movie and the house, but always with a sense of being the most firmly grounded member of the family. Charlotte Rampling does great work as the family matriarch, possibly the biggest casualty of the shifting times and tied to the past so emotionally. I found myself wanting more with her character, as she had a melancholy to her that was fascinating to watch. I also wanted more from Will Poulter’s desperate and disfigured Roderick just to round him out as his character serves a vital role in the strange goings on in the house. Another real treasure of the film is newcomer Liv Hill as Betty, the Ayres’ maid, who like Dr. Faraday is an outsider from the family, but in some ways is a lot closer to them than he is.
One of the few flaws of the film is actually in one of the things it does well. The pace is brisk and makes for an easy and engaging watch, but it could have afforded to take a few more moments simply to slow down, even stop and allow the audience to soak in events before moving on, which can be very important in a story like this. Also, whilst the movie isn’t explicit about what is happening, there are a few moments where ambiguity and mystery could have been played up a bit more. However, I may simply be feeling this way because of my familiarity with the novel, and so others may feel very differently in this regard. It is still an effective ending, underlining everything that you have experienced and leaving you both cold and unsettled.
Who the little stranger is I will not divulge, that is something you will have to find out for yourself, but as for what The Little Stranger is, I will gladly say as it is an effective piece with an excellent cast assembled, and all with a classic style that isn’t afraid to play with your expectations.