The Little Stranger: Ghosts in the big house are not scary part
Review: Lenny Abrahamson’s impressively clammy follow-up to the all-conquering 'Room'
Domhnall Gleeson and Ruth Wilson
Film Title: The Little Stranger
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill, Oliver Zetterström
Running Time: 111 min
There has already been some controversy about the marketing of Lenny Abrahamson’s impressively clammy follow-up to the all-conquering Room. The poster and trailer seem to be telling us that The Little Stranger is firmly in the big-house ghost genre. More than a few reviews of Sarah Waters’s excellent source novel made mention of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.
Abrahamson’s film is, however, even less at home to the unambiguously supernatural than the Waters book. Weird things do happen, but they happen mostly in the margins.
The Little Stranger is a film about class, money and the British post-war rearrangement. A comparison with Brideshead Revisited might be more useful (if a little perverse). Once again, a less-well-off person is drawn towards the denizens of a palatial mansion that seems unlikely to survive the coming egalitarian consensus.
All clipped vowels and straight back, Domhnall Gleeson plays Faraday, a young doctor summoned to care for a maid in the Warwickshire pile owned by the Ayres clan. Ruth Wilson is magnificently ragged as Caroline, the daughter of the house.
Will Poulter, acting beneath heavy make-up, is war-scarred son Roderick. You hardly need to be told that Charlotte Rampling is the grand materfamilias. That’s the law these days. You have to obey the law.
Dr Faraday has history here. His mother was once a servant at Hundreds Hall, and he has uneasy memories of attending an event there as a child. The Ayres lost a daughter around this time and Faraday feels some connection to her. Is she trying to contact the family from beyond the grave?
A docile dog turns nasty. Bells start ringing inexplicably in the pantry. There could be rational explanations for all these things, but the film invites us to lean gently into the fantastic.
The narrative dynamics of The Little Stranger may echo Brideshead, but the film-makers’ sympathies lie somewhere else. Whereas Waugh’s novel and the famous TV series – both book-ended by passages set after the war – stood as a dubious lament to the romantic glory of the landed class, The Little Stranger plants a sourness in the Ayres family that invites no such rhapsody.
There is a sense that Faraday savours his position a working-class striver who is now in a position to help out the Ayres clan. When Mrs Ayres describes him as “one of us”, he accepts it as a measure of his achievement. But we are left in no doubt that he’s hooking himself to a dying beast.
The peripheral ghostly nuisances suggest the Ayres family is doomed. The new council houses rising within view of the bay windows make the same argument in more prosaic fashion. Faraday’s eventual romance with Caroline feels like desperation on both their parts.
Ole Bratt Birkeland, who shot A Date for Mad Mary and American Animals, finds a creeping decay in every shot of Hundreds Hall. While Faraday observes the advance of the NHS, the family are forced to wall off increasingly huge sections of the dangerous structure. Doom, doom, doom.
Waters allowed more suspicions of genuinely macabre happenings in her opening half – particularly regarding Roderick’s story – but here the phenomena seem observations on the fleshy reality. The viewer could be forgiven for thinking that almost everyone deserves their looming misery.
Faraday is a bit of a prig. Roderick is too damaged to pretend to be polite. Caroline is the most connected to reality, but her pessimism casts almost as sombre a shadow as the hints of possession.
The grey fug can become oppressive. Unlike Brideshead, The Little Stranger allows that this world’s time has come, but the film doesn’t promise much for the future.
That is a grim place to end up. Maybe The Little Stranger is a scary movie after all.
Opens September 21st