Lenny Abrahamson's latest film went down like a dose of the clap at the US box office, its case not helped by a thoroughly misleading trailer that led popcorn-munchers to believe they were in for an out-and-out horror fest. While there is a supernatural aspect to The Little Stranger, it's unlikely to be mistaken for something by Wes Craven: it's a lot more subtle, stately and interesting than that.
t’s based on a 2009 Sarah Waters novel that Abrahamson has wanted to adapt ever since he first read it. Set in the glum austerity of postwar England, it stars Domhnall Gleeson as Faraday, a country doctor who works hard but lives alone and seems tightly wound. One day he’s called to Hundreds Hall, a grand but dilapidated 18th century mansion to tend to a sick maid. The girl complains of hearing noises in the upper rooms and claims the place is haunted: Faraday, a man of science, diagnoses exhaustion and quietly advises the girl to pull herself together.
The house is owned by the Ayres, a grand but penniless aristocratic bunch whose surly superiority is exemplified by Angela (Charlotte Rampling), a stern matriarch who gives Faraday a swift once over and expertly diagnoses humble origins. He is chippy, and his tightly clipped moustache bristles with indignation, but Faraday gets a warmer reception from Angela’s daughter, Caroline (Ruth Wilson). Unkempt but pretty, she has no airs or graces and asks the doctor for help.
Her older brother Roddy (Will Poulter) was wounded and badly burned in a wartime plane crash. He lives with severe pain and when Faraday uses electro-therapy to ease it, he becomes a trusted family friend. He and Caroline grow close and he proposes, but the Ayres don’t know that Faraday has an old connection with Hundreds Hall, and has long nursed an unhealthy obsession with it. Then there are those unexplained noises in the attic, the old servant bells that peal out in the dead of night though no hand seems to ring them, and the appearance of scraped engravings on Angela’s bedroom wall. Is there a ghost, and if so, what might it want?
That supernatural subplot constantly simmers thanks to a carefully curated Gothic mood and Ole Bratt Birkeland’s haunting cinematography, but really this is a film about class, social tensions and the warped obsessions of a lonely man. Gleeson’s Faraday is a fascinating character, a man haunted by the stern judgements of his late mother, who worked as a maid at Hundreds Hall and convinced her ambitious, resentful son that the Ayres occupied a rarified stratosphere unreachable to the likes of him.
The reality is otherwise: the Ayres are trapped in a vast house they can no longer maintain, members of a landed class that’s about to be obliterated by seismic social change. But Faraday can’t see that and is determined to grasp the thing his mother said he’d never have. Wilson is superb as Caroline, a spirited, free-thinking woman who sees the doctor as a way out of her stifling life. He himself, though, may not be entirely fascinating: when they go to a dance together, Caroline meets an old female friend and we get a sense that her passions may not be exclusively heterosexual. But who knows, for these are English people in 1947, who talk about everything except what really matters.
In the film’s most riveting scene, Faraday staggers from slight to slight as he tries to hold his own at a Hundreds Hall drinks party exclusively populated by his supposed social superiors. The evening ends in horror, and a random incident that seems to suggest the presence of a malign influence in the house.
All of that, though, is left up to you, because The Little Stranger is a subtle, delicately unfolding film that pulls you along and gently poses many questions. It’s a beautiful film and Gleeson and Wilson are splendid.