Some will find it the perfect antidote to the splashy summer movie season.
Many directors like to tackle something completely different for each project, to flex new muscles and show they can take on a wide variety of stories. This maxim has been proven true time and time again, most recently with Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson, who follows up his critically-acclaimed 2015 drama/thriller Room with the moody drama/horror/mystery The Little Stranger, which couldn’t be more different in many ways. While the majority of Room is set in the one-room dungeon where Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) are kept, The Little Stranger is largely set in a sprawling gothic mansion that has fallen on hard times, along with the Ayres family who inhabits it.
In many ways, an atmospheric period piece like The Little Stranger is the perfect antidote to the splashy summer movie season, a slow burn drama where there is barely any actual movement among the characters, let alone action. In fact, the biggest beef I have with the movie is that said burn is a touch too slow at times, but the performances and this gripping, mysterious yarn do make up for it.
The story is set in England in 1948 at an enormous palatial estate dubbed Hundreds Hall, which had been one of the most prominent castles in the 18th Century, but now it’s just a shell of its previous existence. The film opens several years earlier, in much happier times at Hundreds Hall, where a festive party is taking place hosted by the Ayres family. Years later, this gala is still a cherished memory for a doctor known only as Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), who was only there at the party because his mother worked at the home as a servant.
He is brought out to Hundreds Hall to treat a young maid named Betty (Liv Hill), who has grown tired of the drab demeanor of this once-great British castle. Faraday keeps being drawn back to the house time and time again, whether it be to treat both the physical and mental wounds of the Hundreds Hall heir Roderick (Will Poulter) that he suffered in WWII, or continue cultivating his friendship with the family’s unmarried daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson). Upon Faraday becoming a more trusted family friend, strange occurrences start to unfold, some which could feasibly be explained, some which could not.
The Little Stranger is most definitely a film that demands your absolutely undivided attention in ways most films don’t these days. If you feel the need to exit the theater for any reason during the film, there’s a very good chance you might miss a subtly placed piece of this puzzle that could very well be of use later on in the film. That’s not to say that The Little Stranger is wrapped up neatly in a bow, so to speak, at the end. While I haven’t read the book of the same name by Sarah Waters, what I’ve gathered is that it’s a rather faithful adaptation, written in captivating fashion by Lucinda Coxon (The Danish Girl).
The performances here are the real treat, from the subtle and nuanced work that Gleeson showcases as Faraday to Wilson’s utterly compelling turn as Caroline and Will Poulter’s career-best performance as the tormented Roderick. Another rather minor beef I had was that we don’t see enough of the inimitable Charlotte Rampling as the unnamed Ayres family matriarch, but what we do see of her is quite delightful. Given a much bigger canvas to play with this time around, director Lenny Abrahamson shines by artfully peeling back the visual layers of this story with deft precision.
Coxon’s utterly rich script also touches on themes of class, supernatural vs. science (i.e. explained vs. unexplained phenomena), and how women of that era were seen as nothing more than wives, with a rather surprising amount of dialogue focusing on how unattractive Caroline is perceived by most of the men in this story. Still, almost ironically, the misogyny may even make Caroline a stronger character, while also showing how out of touch the Ayres’ are, cooped up in their estate while the rest of the world passes them by.