The Little Stranger, 2018.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson.
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling and Liv Hill.
A doctor provides care for the eccentric family who live in a crumbling 18th century mansion during the postwar years, only for mysterious and dark events to take place within its walls.
A few weeks ago, The Nun cast a chill through UK cinemas – more because it was utterly terrible than because it was scary. It did, however, mark the return of pure gothic horror to UK cinema screens and to the top of the box office, a few years after Guillermo del Toro’s delightfully lurid Crimson Peak failed to make any sort of impression on critics or audiences. Immediately in the wake of Corin Hardy’s Conjuring movie comes something equally gothic, but very different, in the shape of The Little Stranger – Lenny Abrahamson’s first movie since he was Oscar nominated for Room.
It’s a film set in rural Warwickshire in the aftermath of the Second World War. The shockwaves of change are reverberating through British society, as a Labour government is on the brink of bringing socialism to the UK. This displeases many at the wealthier end of the spectrum, including the Ayres family – residents of an 18th century mansion that is crumbling around them under the ownership of PTSD-stricken, facially disfigured war veteran Roderick (Will Poulter) and his mother (Charlotte Rampling). The real day-to-day care of the house, though, is down to his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson).
It’s into this fragile equilibrium that Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) steps when he is brought in to look at maid Betty (Liv Hill), who is exhibiting signs of a mysterious illness. He soon becomes a regular doctor for the family and forms a relationship with Caroline, though he is haunted by his previous experience of the building as a youngster. When Rampling’s Mrs Ayres ominously states that “this house works on people”, it’s a harbinger of the gothic chills to come.
But that’s not to say that genre fans will flock to The Little Stranger. Abrahamson’s film is an inscrutable, slippery beast that defies any sense of genre or tone. It’s perhaps to be expected given that the movie is adapted from a story by Sarah Waters, whose novel Fingersmith inspired Park Chan-wook’s incredible thriller The Handmaiden – an exercise in keeping the audience guessing. Abrahamson is equally keen to hold his cards close to his chest, and that’s to the film’s benefit. Scenes are as likely to end with a furtive glance than with one of the occasional explosions of visceral violence.
Abrahamson calmly, coolly creates an atmosphere of dread and doom, as if dark forces are gradually building against the backdrop of the unfolding drama. Gleeson’s character – a tangle of unspoken emotions and repressed feelings – is the closest thing the audience has to a surrogate, but his mercurial performance disguises any truth that may reside within him. He’s a real counterpoint to Ruth Wilson, whose character wears all of her emotions on her sleeve and is visibly damaged by the events taking place. Just as she was in Dark River earlier this year, Wilson is the standout here.
But this is a movie that’s entirely about the sense of unease it conjures. Abrahamson utilises dark corners, creaking floorboards and bells that ring without anyone moving them just like any other horror director, but he seldom releases the tension with a jump, a jolt or an answer to any of the myriad mysteries. He’s assisted by a quietly mysterious, tinkling score by Stephen Rennicks and sound design that amplifies every moment of ambient birdsong as if it’s contributing to a force that’s actively holding these people inside the crucible of suffering the house represents.
Those in search of answers will find themselves rather let down by the way the movie concludes, piling ambiguity on top of ambiguity to create a spooky finale that, although effective, may be unsatisfying to some. It is, however, a movie that shows Abrahamson as one of the most versatile and interesting filmmakers currently working. The Little Stranger is a horror movie that ends on a chill down the spine rather than the aural assault of a showy jump scare – and for that it should be praised.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.