For his first film since the 2015 triumph Room, director Lenny Abrahamson has chosen to adapt a Sarah Waters novel, but not the kind of novel you might be imagining. Most strongly known for her popular lesbian themed Victorian narratives like Tipping The Velvet and Fingersmith, Waters departed from her niche in 2009 to give readers something a little different, a gothic drama with a supernatural twist in the form of The Little Stranger.
Set in the late 1940s, the film tells the story of Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a local GP who is tasked with revisiting a stately home that transfixed him as a child to tend to the needs of the Ayres family, matriarch Angela (Charlotte Rampling), son Roderick (Will Poulter), a severely disfigured war veteran and daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson), called home from her independence to care for her ailing brother. With the once grand house now in disrepair, the fortunes of the family dwindling by the day, and an ever present memory of a long deceased third child, the family is characterised by melancholy. Originally believing the root of the Ayres family’s problems to be a combination of practical and psychological, strange goings on and unexplained occurrences soon lead the cast of characters to question whether something more supernatural is taking place.
Although The Little Stranger provides a strong lesson in how to set up and maintain a strong and unsettling atmosphere, I can’t help being left feeling that it doesn’t quite know what kind of film it wants to be, and suffers from a lack of thematic identity. On one hand, you have a really intriguing and elegantly executed portrayal of the downfall and upheaval of the class system in post-war Britain, and on the other hand, you have a thread of ‘ghost story’ and scaled back horror tropes that never quite hit the marks you want them to hit. I can’t say that any sequence in the film is truly scary, and that’s coming from someone who was the only person watching in a 200 seater cinema. I was expecting even the slightest hint of horror to send me in to a solo tizzy, but nothing in The Little Stranger ever reaches those kinds of heights.
Some might argue that a 12A rated film doesn’t have the wiggle room to produce such a reaction in the first place, but I can tell you firmly that pictures like The Others and The Woman In Black had me, as the kids say, shook. In terms of its two distinct narrative lines, however, the film does produce a lot of great content on the more ‘human’ side of the story. The themes of class decline, grief, post traumatic stress and in particular a restrained and problematic feeling relationship between Dr. Faraday and Caroline all make for really interesting watching, its just a shame that the ghost story end of the bargain feels too quiet and too gentle for its own good. I haven’t read Sarah Waters’ novel to be able to to compare, but one almost gets the sense that the supernatural element was wedged in to intensify the gothic feel of the narrative, whilst the richness of the human family drama was the element that either the author or the director was most passionate about. I guess it ultimately depends how faithful the film is to the source material.
As Dr. Faraday, Domhnall Gleeson continues to prove himself as one of the best character actors around. From this to Star Wars: The Last Jedi to Goodbye Christopher Robin to mother!, you can’t say that he hasn’t been making varied and interesting choices over the last couple of years! Gleeson gives a painfully restrained and stoic performance as Faraday, intentionally so. He perfectly evokes the impression of a character who regrets many of his life and career decisions, finding himself a somewhat stunted individual, a sensible and helpful man, a talented doctor, but someone who is hopelessly drawn to the past and aspires to greater things, even though he doesn’t necessarily understand what they might be.
Charlotte Rampling is criminally underused as matriarch Angela Ayres. A commanding and enigmatic on screen presence, the film feels like it possesses that extra grain of quality when she takes centre stage, a far too infrequent occurrence for my liking. Will Poulter as Roderick is encumbered by an over the top cliched upper class accent and a lot of face altering prosthetics, which results, in my opinion anyway, in a slightly forced performance.
Star of the show in my opinion is Ruth Wilson as Caroline. The narrative has her in an unfortunate position of being described as an ‘ugly’, ‘frumpy’ character, with the filmmakers opting to display this through slightly odd clothes and occasional messy hair, certainly nowhere near enough to disguise her clear natural beauty. Despite this awkward characterisation, Wilson is a powerful and charismatic presence in the film, matching Gleeson’s intensity pound for pound. She brings an energy of desperation and discontent to the film that really helps to enhance the unsettled and uneasy vibe. Her performance leaves the audience wanting to know so much more about the character, which is kind of the best compliment you can pay an actor, no?
Overall, The Little Stranger is a film that definitely evokes its intended gothic atmosphere, but it is also a film that I think works better as heightened drama about the death of the English upper class than a creepy supernatural tale. Of course, it has a novel’s narrative to follow, but it almost feels as though the human story contained within (and the accompanying cast performances) would have made for a really high quality American ‘Southern gothic’ style drama, rather than the muted, low impact ghost story that it turns out to be.