UK Release Date: 21st September 2018
Runtime: 111 minutes
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Writer: Lucinda Coxon
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill, Tipper Seifert-Cleveland
Synopsis: A doctor becomes fascinated by the occupants of an 18th century mansion which he has coveted since he was a child. Soon, though, apparently supernatural events threaten the family.
It has been three years since Lenny Abrahamson directed the fabulous Room, earning a Best Actress gong for the now-superhero Brie Larson and netting himself a nomination for Best Director. He has marked his return with The Little Stranger – a very different beast to his previous film, but one that’s also interesting and atmospheric, with a strong sense of building dread.
Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is called to the Warwickshire mansion Hundreds Hall in 1947 to help with an apparently mysterious illness that has struck one of the maids. There, he meets the war-scarred owner of the building Roderick (Will Poulter), his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and their mother Angela (Charlotte Rampling). Faraday reveals that he attended the house as a working class youngster and was in awe of the fancy folk who lived there. He soon becomes a friend and confidante to the family, particularly when malevolent forces begin to terrorise the occupants.
It would be wrong to describe The Little Stranger as a horror movie, but it would be equally wrong to describe it as not being a horror movie. Abrahamson develops and nurtures a real core of atmospheric dread at the heart of the story, which utilises the genre tropes of dark corners filled with shadows, sudden explosions of quite shocking bloodshed and the gothic staple of a lone figure wandering the dark halls of a cavernous home. Horror fans looking for jolts and conventional ghoulish pay-off will be left short-changed, but there’s a gripping chill that runs down the spine of the entire story.
The buttoned-up repression of Domhnall Gleeson sits at the heart of The Little Stranger, in another of his now signature performances as a snooty Englishman. Faraday is a man reaching out of his class and craving a higher position, just as the Tory stranglehold on the country throughout the 1930s and wartime years gave way to the socialist reforms of the Attlee government. He’s a man under threat due to the fragility of his class position and on the verge of seeing his job shaken up by the introduction of the NHS, so he enters the story here as a glass sculpture that could shatter at the gentlest stimulation.
Gleeson’s performance gives the movie its centre, but it’s Ruth Wilson who stands out among the crowd. Just as she did earlier this year in Dark River, she delivers a compelling and real performance as a woman broken down by the men around her, whether it’s her war-damaged brother or the lecherous men she encounters at a party to which Faraday takes her. Then there’s Faraday, who seems to be far more interested in the house than in her. Given the source material is by Sarah Waters – whose slippery novel Fingersmith was adapted as the brilliant The Handmaiden – it’s fair to assume that there’s more to all of these characters than meets the eye, and Wilson plays that ambiguity to perfection.
Abrahamson’s direction, too, understands the secrecy and shadows of the Waters text, knowing exactly when to conceal and when to reveal. The Little Stranger is designed aurally and visually to enhance the atmosphere at every turn, from Ole Bratt Birkeland’s stylish cinematography to the tinkling score by Abrahamson’s regular composer Stephen Rennicks. Its constant sense of cloudy mystery might be wearying for some viewers and it’s certainly true that Abrahamson’s movie is as restrained as its characters, but that doesn’t prevent it from packing an elegant, spooky punch.
Pop or Poop?
Postwar gothic chills and class commentary provide for another compelling Sarah Waters adaptation in The Little Stranger, in which Lenny Abrahamson follows Frank and Room with another completely different beast – one built on terrific performances and the expert design of its gothic locale. Ruth Wilson, in particular, stands out in a film that holds all of its cards very close to its chest, but never pulls its punches.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.