The Little Stranger
Updated: Feb 7, 2020
There is something extra creepy about period ghost stories set in vast estates. One reason is certainly the eerie beauty of the homes being haunted. Also, the idea of supernatural events occurring in such a low-tech environment is strangely unsettling to me. The Little Stranger, a mystery drama taking place in 1948 England that is only sort of a ghost story, does have atmosphere on its side thanks to the rundown design of its central location and strong performances from its main cast. But it fails to build on it. Much of the action is going on in the heads of its characters, some of which it never lets out. Due to this, the movie struggles to use it to entertain or disturb.
The Little Stranger (104 minutes, minus the end credits) follows Dr. Faraday (a moody Domhnall Gleeson) who, as the story begins, responds to a call to treat the maid at Hundreds Hall. He visited the sprawling mansion once as a child and his return rekindles his fascination with the place. It is inhabited by the Ayres family, Mrs. Ayres (the always welcome Charlotte Rampling) and her grown children, Roderick (Will Poulter), back from the war, physically and emotionally scarred, and Caroline (Ruth Wilson, quietly sympathetic), lonely and kind, as well as the young maid, Betty. Faraday finds himself drawn closer to the Ayres’ (and their home). Meanwhile, something possibly supernatural begins spooking the residents of Hundreds Hall.
The Little Stranger is based on a 2009 novel by Sarah Waters that I have heard positive things about. However, not every book is ripe for a successful adaptation. In the case of this property, relying on the POV of the protagonist (via a first person perspective) is probably more effective than watching him from the outside. Domhnall Gleeson is good in the role, but the character is either too vague or not vague enough. There are a few moments where I was intrigued by what might be going through his head and others where I was able to correctly predict what was going to happen before it feels like I was supposed to. Without giving away too much, I will just say that Dr. Faraday is the type of character that works far better in literature than in the visual world of the cinema.
The emotions are necessarily muted in this story. They do not really start to come out until the tension escalates toward the end. Even then, it does not escalate that much. Director Lenny Abrahamson (a Best Director Oscar nominee in 2015 for Room) is very careful with the tone of The Little Stranger. He mostly keeps things at the level of a psychological drama, with an undercurrent of unease. Something is not right at Hundreds Hall, but what?
Unfortunately, that mystery has not been made particularly captivating. Despite being impressed with the delicacy of the direction and performances, those can only hold my interest for so long. The screenplay never got me to care about the characters. If I cannot care about what happens to them, then the movie has lost me. That is what occurred here. The Little Stranger is well-made, but very closed off. I admired the production, though I was unable to get into it.
2¾ out of 5
Domhnall Gleeson as Faraday
Ruth Wilson as Caroline Ayres
Will Poulter as Roderick Ayres
Charlotte Rampling as Mrs. Ayres
Liv Hill as Betty
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Screenplay by Lucinda Coxon