21st Sep2018

‘The Little Stranger’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill | Written by Lucinda Coxon | Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

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Director Lenny Abrahamson follows up the Oscar-nominated Room with this period haunted house drama, based on the novel by Sarah Waters. As such, it’s a faithful adaptation that has interesting things to say about class, desire and loneliness, though it has little to offer genre fans in terms of scares.

Set in the summer of 1948, The Little Stranger stars Domhnall Gleeson as Faraday, a Warwickshire physician who’s called to Hundreds Hall, where his mother worked as a servant, before he was born. The Ayres family – including capable Caroline (Ruth Wilson), war-injured brother Roderick (Will Poulter) and their haughty mother, Angela (Charlotte Rampling) – have fallen on hard times and their one remaining maid, Betty (rising star Liv Hill) has been taken ill, seemingly terrified of the house itself. Obsessed with both Hundreds Hall and what it represents, Faraday repeatedly returns to the house, treating Roderick for PTSD and clumsily attempting to woo Caroline. However, his visits seem to agitate a mysterious presence in the house. Is it the ghost of Angela’s first daughter, Susan? Or something more sinister?

In fairness to Abrahamson, the book is a slow-moving tale in which very little actually happens, so in that sense, it’s an extremely faithful adaptation. If anything, it’s too faithful, because it comes across as stultifyingly dry and dusty, downplaying both the potential romance and the scares in favour of a pervasive, creeping atmosphere of decay.

Abrahamson’s concerns clearly lie elsewhere, most notably in what The Little Stranger has to say about class, specifically aspiring social climber Faraday and his longing for the landed gentry life he dreamed of as a child. To that end, the film makes a small but significant change to the book in the final act, that actually improves on the source material, or, at the very least, gets you thinking about it in a different way.

Gleeson delivers an intriguing performance that’s as clipped as his moustache. There’s no chemistry between him and Wilson, but maybe that’s the point – his desire for Hundreds Hall far out-strips his desire for Caroline, it’s just that she represents his only means of getting his hands on it. Wilson, for her part, is excellent, layering Caroline with an under-the-surface melancholy, the potential source of which is vaguely hinted at in a village fete scene when she dances with an old female friend (with Faraday glowering at her all the while). There’s also strong support from Will Poulter, while Rampling is reliably unsettling as Angela.

Throughout the film, there are a number of creepy moments (unexplained bangs, servants’ bells ringing from empty rooms, that sort of thing) and the plot isn’t short of a grisly moment or two, but it never adds up to anything approaching real terror, largely because the characters themselves are so cold.

While it’s undeniably amusing to trace Abrahamson’s graduation from the oppression of a single room to the oppression of an entire mansion house, The Little Stranger ultimately suffers from the lack of emotional investment in its characters, leaving the story as empty and desolate as the house itself.

*** 3/5

The Little Stranger is in UK cinemas now.

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