If You Have Ghosts: The Haunting of The Little Stranger
Director Lenny Abrahamson talks post-war Gothic
By Richard Whittaker,
7:00AM, Fri. Aug. 31, 2018
There are the ghosts that haunt us, and there are the legacies of the past that we carry we with us. That's the tragic message of The Little Stranger, Lenny Abrahamson's tale of unsettled souls in the crumbling remnants of Britain's post-war gentry.
It's a far remove from Abrahamson's last film, the Oscar-lauded Room, a film whose brighter message was that any darkness can be left behind. Here instead World War II veteran turned village doctor Faraday (Abrahamson's Frank star Domhnall Gleeson) falls under the spell of Hundreds Hall, the ancestral home of the Ayres family – the kind of threadbare aristocratic clan who would describe themselves as a little bit of a loose end for cash these days.
Adapted from the novel by Sarah Waters (whose 2002 novel Fingersmith was converted to the screen by Park Chan-Wook as The Handmaiden), The Little Stranger deals with the invisible lines between classes, as the Ayres try to escape the burden of their past, and Faraday – forever the son of a kitchen maid – knocks at the door of privilege. Abrahamson called "an absolutely British story. ... I sometimes ask myself the question, what will an American audience make of this, because it's so much to do with class. If you're tuned into the unique codes of British accent and behavior, and the calculations of origin and wealth, will you understand that he's never going to fit, and it, and he's never going to be one of them?"
Austin Chronicle: Moving from the very American Room to the very British A Little Stranger seems like quite a shift, almost a ricochet. Was that deliberate?
Lenny Abrahamson: I’m never strategic in my decisions about everything. After I came off Room, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Right, I want to another literary adaptation.’ But actually I’d read The Little Stranger about 10 years ago when it came out, and had been thinking about it ever since. I’d been talking to the producers and Lucinda Coxon, the screenwriter, right from before Frank, even. After Room, certainly there were opportunities to do plenty of American stuff, some of which were quite big, but I still had this in my head, and I thought, well, now is the time to do it, and if I don’t do it now, then other things will intervene, and I just couldn’t bear to let it go.
LA: I think you’re right, [and] the end of The Little Stranger mirrors the end of What Richard Did. That question of, who is this character that I thought I understood? What’s operating, what’s left in them? There’s definitely a resonance between those two.
AC: And speaking of looping to your earlier work, Domhnall Gleeson as Faraday. He catches that sense of someone just on the edge of their station, and even among the other doctors he never quite fits in.
LA: Personal history with Domhnall, I loved working with him on Frank, and became friends with him, and always wanted to do something else with him. With a character like Faraday, who, to use that great word, is a little bit rebarbative – he pushes you away – he’s quite stiff, he’s that quintessentially repressed British guy from the mid-20th century. But if you’re going to that, and still maintain a depth, and a sense that there’s something underneath it, then to cast an actor with a natural warmth and humanity to me felt really important, and Domhnall has that.
AC: There's an invisible line of class that Faraday can never cross, even in the way he speaks. By contrast Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson) has that mouth-full-of-marbles aristocratic tone, that's this combination of what she's been taught to speak like, but also that she's so unused to speaking to people, because they're all trapped in this splendid isolation.
LA: We experimented with a lot of things. She's actually wearing very subtly extended teeth [and] quite a lot of padding around the backside, and that walk, to give her that rather ungainly rural-posh thing that you don't see so much in Downton Abbey. This is the slightly more agricultural version of the lady of the house.
But what's moving about her character is that she doesn't care about class. She talks the way she was brought up to talk, but she of all of them does not generalize that into a theory of value, in the way that her mother or her brother does. But Faraday cannot see that. Faraday cannot see her as a person. For him, she is the representative of that thing that he wants.
AC: And of course Hundreds Hall is such a character in its own right – very reminiscent of the house in Cries and Whispers. It has its own specific geography, and discrete areas that are tonally separated, with different color palettes. That it's a place in collapse, with its history built into its fabric.
LA: The funny thing about Britain at the moment is that these houses are harder to find, because they're being developed. They're hard to keep for an individual, so families have been getting out of those houses for 80 years. So what's happened is that they're being bought up, and turned into hotels or apartments, and the houses that are left are the really, really fine ones, the National Trust houses, which you can sometimes film in, but you can't touch. You can't bang a nail in, or paint a wall, or do anything that you might need to do to create Hundreds Hall.
So we were really lucky that we had this wonderful designer called Simon Elliott, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of shootable British houses. So having looked at a lot, he came up with this place, Langleybury, which I think is just about to be turned into a hotel, but we got it just when we could really use it. It's 300 years old, it's got this fabulous hallway, it really was a gift to us.
Simon really went to town and created this extraordinary interior, which is not what one might expect. I think one might expect going the full Gothic on it, but there's lot of silks and gold and duck egg blues and greens, and there's this quite rich color palette on the inside. At the same time, it carries that creepiness that we needed.
We shot quite a chunk, two-thirds maybe, of a pretty long shoot, and by the end I was pretty happy to get out. It really does get in on you. Those are hard places to live, and the idea of trying to maintain a house like that – I've got a nice but quite manageable place in Dublin, and I find it hard to keep it going. I would hate to have to run an estate.
The Little Stranger is in theaters now. For review and show times, see our listings page.