Film Review – The Little Stranger (2018)

Three years ago, director Lenny Abrahamson’s star was on the ascendancy.  With one indie success under his belt, thanks to the idiosyncratic Frank, he followed up with Room, which became the toast of the festival and awards season.  Now, from a film that was set within the confines of 10 square feet, he moves to a dilapidated mansion in the middle of a country estate.  Yet they’re both equally claustrophobic.

The Little Stranger is adapted from Sarah Waters’ bestselling novel of the same name, a portrait of a declining dynasty with its ancestral home and grounds falling apart.  But the crumbling mansion hides another, more mysterious secret.  In the years following World War II, Doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) has set up as a GP in his old home town.  Called out to the fading mansion, Hundreds Hall, memories of his childhood and the Ayres family who live there come flooding back.  They’re not all fond ones and the house feels haunted in some way, although nobody can explain it.  As he becomes more involved with the family, especially their daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson), he gets closer to uncovering the mystery.

It’s a slow burner, a tone that works hand in hand with the gloomy, sometimes foreboding, atmosphere.  Where the story is heading in the first half is difficult to tell: frustrating as that is, there’s more than enough to hold on to your interest.  The cinematography from Ole Bratt Birkeland is elegant, full of smoky, subdued colours, and that sense of claustrophobia is all-pervasive.  Added to that doom-laden atmosphere it produces a film that gradually turns your knuckles white – so slowly that you hardly notice until well towards the end.

The real attention grabber is the cast, headed by Domhnall Gleeson.  Rapidly carving out a niche for himself playing fragile, emotionally repressed men, he’s on fine form here, especially when it comes to exploring one of the film’s main themes, that of class. As he explains at the start, he never imagined that the doors of place like Hundreds Hall would open to somebody like him.  An inverted form of snobbery runs alongside those childhood memories, as does the impression that he was badly treated by his mother.  He’s a damaged, brittle man in a darkly gothic tale.  But this is not a one man show, with Ruth Wilson as excellent as ever as the emotionally and physically trapped Caroline, and Charlotte Rampling as the mother, pitifully trying to recapture the family’s lost glories.  Will Poulter is near-unrecognisable as her son Roderick, coping with the physical and mental scars of the war and the prospect of the family home falling apart.

Is there a ghost in the house?  That’s not for this reviewer to say, but there is a distinct ambiguity about the film.  It points you in a definite direction, one that makes enough sense for you to believe you’ve worked everything out.  But when you think about it some more, what you’re faced with is as murky as the atmosphere in the house itself.  And you’re back to square one.  Possibly.

The Little Stranger does many things well, yet ultimately it’s not the sum of its parts.  Aspects of the storyline simply don’t add up and the emotionally repressed characters constantly keep the audience at arm’s length with their coolness, so it’s difficult to invest fully in them.   It comes close to being another triumph for Abrahamson, but never quite gets there.

Freda Cooper | [rating=3]

Drama | 12A | UK, 21 September (2018) | Pathe | Dir. Lenny Abrahamson| Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter.