The Little Stranger, 2018.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson.
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling and Liv Hill.
After a doctor is called to visit a crumbling manor, strange things begin to occur.
How strange for The Little Stranger, Lenny Abrahamson’s follow-up to unexpected Oscar hit Room, to be so quietly dropped amidst festival season. It’s a real shame; the film itself is an icy, baroque chamber piece, almost uninterested in the central horror, choosing instead to focus on disquieting interactions and meditating on a crippled class system.
Wonderfully mustachioed Domnhall Gleeson is Faraday, a country doctor living a quietly isolating existence. As a young child he visited the grand Hundreds Hall, a manor home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries. Years later during a routine visit, he finds the manor in disrepair. Matriarch Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) cares little, son Roderick (Will Poulter) is badly scarred, both physically and mentally by the war leaving Caroline (Ruth Wilson) to take on the burden of their crumbling castle.
Faraday slowly finds himself entwined in familial relationships as strange goings on force questions.
Abrahamson has never been one to be pigeon-holed, dipping his toes into almost surrealist musical comedies – Frank, kitchen-sink dramas – Adam and Paul and unexpected Oscar bait – Room. So word of him taking on horror was less unexpected, more intriguing – this amidst the recent resurgence of horror as a genre to be celebrated.
But Abrahamson seems totally disinterested in scaring the audience. In The Little Stranger, he’s woven a tale unsettling in its discussion of class maneuvering, and whilst sequences do creek and creep, the film is most successful when a study of a long-doomed relationship.
And it’s anchored by a brilliant central performance from Ruth Wilson. Her shoulders are constantly drooped, as if she’s very literally carrying the weight of the manor upon herself. Even as Faraday makes her aware of his yearning for her, she doesn’t necessarily perk up, but take on further weight. It’s only when taken to a dance and she sees an old-friend that she seems to find herself comfortable in her own skin.
Cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland – whose work on television series’ Utopia and National Treasure was truly remarkable – shoots as if a ghostly presence. The camera lingers in soft focus close-ups, framing Faraday and the Ayres as if ghosts themselves.
But where others would exploit this to tease a twist, Abrahamson chooses to play the film entirely straight. The presence of the afterlife is displaced by Faraday’s fear that his working class routes make him a lesser man compared to previously prosperous Ayres.
For some The Little Stranger may be too chilly for its own good. Characters are uniformly uptight and closed in on themselves, and the central horror is less scary, more quietly unsettling.
It manages to tread the line between Hammer Horror and a Douglas Sirk melodrama with a deft touch, if fed through the lens of a kitchen sink drama. It’s an isolating dive intro repression impressively, if misleadingly packaged as a gothic horror.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★