REVIEW: The Little Stranger [2018]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: R | Runtime: 111 minutes | Release Date: September 21st, 2018 (UK)
Studio: Pathé / Focus Features
Director(s): Lenny Abrahamson
Writer(s): Lucinda Coxon / Sarah Waters (novel)

“Well you’re forgiven now”

Novelist Sarah Waters said her intent with The Little Stranger was never to write a ghost story, but instead speak about the rise of socialism in the United Kingdom and how those of affluent stature just below the nobility dealt with the decline of their legacies in its aftermath. I haven’t read the book myself, but this all rings true as far as Lenny Abrahamson‘s cinematic adaptation. Scripted by Lucinda Coxon, the result is more gothic romance than horror at first glance. While the marketing has highlighted the latter, we don’t really experience anything “supernatural” until well past the midway point. Before then we merely watch a doctor of humble origins delicately court a woman trapped between her name’s austerity and the crumbling home currently unbefitting of it.

This juxtaposition is the narrative’s driving force. The boy whose mother once worked as a maid at Hundreds Hall returns decades later as a successful physician only to find its once lavish estate in shambles. Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) arrives on a house call about Betty (Liv Hill), the latest solitary maid assigned to watch over the family and the deafening silence of room upon room. His older partner was the doctor expected by Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson)—who now look after things for their mother (Charlotte Rampling)—so Faraday’s attendance was more destiny than duty. He’d just returned home to this more rural corner in the midst of a makeover after studying in the city, so it’s as though something called him back.

Faraday is the talk of the community helping patients all over, but the memories of one day long ago has him constantly revisiting Hundreds Hall. There’s a severity to his demeanor that appears more deep-set than his newfound air of importance—especially opposite someone as down-to-earth as Caroline despite her birthright and the pity of outsiders sad to see “the best of them” left to languish in decrepitude—but we can never be sure since it slowly transforms into comfort and happiness while assisting Roderick with physical therapy (he’s badly burned and lame from injuries suffered during WWII) and growing closer to his sister. Soon he’s practically a member of the family, even being invited to a soiree the Ayres hope will woo land buyers to ease their financial burden.

It’s here that the first bit of tragedy occurs. The circumstances are peculiar, but also easy to be explained away. The next incident occurs with seeming intent, orchestrated by a troubled mind that never should have been left alone. Faraday becomes more and more possessive with each event, constantly feeling like he could have done something to prevent them. Here he is watching as the pristine vision of this home’s beauty is literally destroyed before his very eyes. It angers him because he believes it doesn’t have to be this way. And as his feelings for Caroline blossom, Faraday wonders if he could in fact move into a position to enact real change. Such thoughts unfortunately bring increased levels of malevolence that can no longer be explained.

Before that, however, things are steeped in the era’s fluctuating economics. We see the awkwardness Faraday oozes by being “unworthy” to think of asking Caroline for marriage considering their disparate heritages and see her appreciation of him regardless since he genuinely enjoys her company unlike those who treat her like a charity case. The working class is rising as the aristocracy falls: something bluntly depicted by affordable housing being built on land the Ayres’ once owned as a right. And we can’t help wonder if that’s the impetus behind the impending terror to come. Has the eldest Ayres daughter (who tragically fell ill and died shortly after young Faraday met her that aforementioned fateful day) come back to punish her family for letting it be taken away?

This is the easy assumption since it seems Faraday has more bile for what’s happening than they do. He wants to stay and reclaim what they lost while Caroline only hopes to escape it like she almost did before Roderick’s wounds. The evil in this house wants to make it so he can do all the things he’s dreamt of doing for so long, dispatching of anyone who comes in his way. And throughout everything his science tries to provide answers. As each person in the Ayres family seemingly becomes haunted by psychosis and delusions, he struggles to save Caroline and himself despite their sanity proving undone by experiences. So that when the signs are unavoidable, they’ve fallen too deep within the spell of a happily ever after.

That’s why The Little Stranger worked so well for me. Rather than be a mood piece that redundantly prolongs an inevitable confrontation, Waters has infused her horror into the underlying dread and uncertainty of the period. She’s made it so that Faraday and Caroline become the answer each seeks while also rendering their desires polar opposites. Caroline is his path towards opulence and Faraday her avenue towards normalcy. They want what the other so desperately hopes to shed. It’s a somberly heart-breaking realization we discover much earlier than they do—one that ratchets up the darkness within Hundreds Hall even more. That alone should expose what’s happening since this poltergeist isn’t quite what it seems. But don’t worry if it doesn’t because the ending soon will.

The period detail impressively recreates and dismantles this world around Faraday as we constantly travel back through his mind at the house’s former immaculate artistry only to return to a present where Caroline must literally re-nail the adornments onto the walls before company arrives. But just as those idyllic memories hold hope, they also contain heavy drama no child should ever endure. This duality is imbued in Gleeson and Wilson’s performances, each character fighting internal demons they’re unsure they’ll ever be able to defeat as the estate itself threatens to consume them. Some can readily admit that what they cling to is over forever while others refuse they’re clinging to anything. The unquantifiable power of the latter’s repression is the greater danger. It’s what we all should fear.


photography:
[1] Domhnall Gleeson stars as “Dr. Faraday” in director Lenny Abrahamson’s THE LITTLE STRANGER, a Focus Features release. Credit: Nicola Dove / Focus Features
[2] Domhnall Gleeson (left) stars as “Dr. Faraday” and Ruth Wilson (right) stars as “Caroline Ayres” in director Lenny Abrahamson’s THE LITTLE STRANGER, a Focus Features release. Credit: Nicola Dove / Focus Features
[3] Charlotte Rampling stars as “Mrs. Ayres” in director Lenny Abrahamson’s THE LITTLE STRANGER, a Focus Features release. Credit: Nicola Dove / Focus Features

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