The Little Stranger
2018, R, 111 min. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Aug. 31, 2018
It’s a ghost story, but it isn’t; the tale of a haunted house, but not really. Set in the aftermath of World War II, this seductive adaptation of Susan Waters’ well-received 2009 novel of the same name chronicles the stranger things afoot at a decaying Georgian mansion owned by a British aristocratic family in decline, the country estate’s shabby appearance symbolic of a social system being slowly dismantled by an emerging middle class. When the rather colorless Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) makes a house call to Hundreds Hall to attend to a sickly servant, he finds the Ayres family – the lineage of a once affluent landed gentry – reduced to selling parcels of its property to survive financially, similar to a fading Southern dynasty struggling to endure a postwar world in a Faulkner novel. The visit sparks a vivid memory in the physician: As a young boy he accompanied his mother, once employed as a housemaid by the prosperous Ayres, to an extravagant lawn party at Hundreds Hall, during which he fell under the spell of the mansion’s splendor, pitifully so given his commoner status. As it turns out, the house call marks a providential return to the past for the enigmatic general practitioner.
Soon, the good doctor (or is he?) begins to subtly ingratiate himself with the members of the household, who include a sharp-witted unmarried daughter, Caroline (Wilson), whom Faraday hopes of marrying one day, making him the lord of the manor. But as each family member, including its aggrieved matriarch (Rampling) and her disfigured war-hero son (Poulter), is slowly driven mad by supernatural goings on at Hundreds Hall (shaking walls and doors, ringing room bells, mysterious scribblings on windowsills, among other things), Doctor Faraday’s endgame becomes less evident and all the more intriguing. Gleeson’s fascinating performance as the pale and ghostly eccentric, a man so lacking in personality that he blends in with the wallpaper, is central to the mystery of The Little Stranger. The way he can barely manage a half-smile is nothing short of brilliant. It’s a master class in stiff-upper-lip repression.
Defying conventional wisdom about how to build a mystery tinged with elements of horror, the film resists today’s unimaginative tropes in favor of something refreshing, seemingly inspired by the muted psychological suspense of works such as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. In other words: Don’t expect any hokey scare tactics here. Under the steady hand of Oscar-nominated director Abrahamson (Room), the film is a calculated slow burn, one that plays a cunning head game with those viewers willing to be entranced. Detractors may dismiss the pacing as dull, or cockily believe the puzzle can be easily solved, but for the faithful, the payoff in The Little Stranger is exquisite.
For an interview with Lenny Abrahamson on class, accents and finding Hundreds Hall, read "If You Have Ghosts: The Haunting of The Little Stranger," Aug. 31.