Dir: Lenny Abrahamson; Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling. Cert 12A, 111 mins
The Little Stranger is one of the most original British horror films of recent times – although whether it can really be classified as horror is a moot point. Based on the novel by Sarah Waters, this is a story about class, envy and self-loathing.
It is set in the austerity-era Britain of 1948, when the country was in debt and drained of colour and when the old aristocracy was on its knees. Beautifully directed by Lenny Abrahamson, the film evokes this period in a way that is both nostalgic and frequently chilling.
Domhnall Gleeson plays the youngish Dr Faraday, an aloof and diffident figure who has opportunities in Clement Attlee’s Britain that would have been denied him before the war. He is from a very humble background, the son of a housemaid, but has risen up the social scale and is now a fully qualified country doctor.
Faraday has a morbid obsession with Hundreds, the decaying, Brideshead-like pile where his mother worked before he was born. He has vivid memories of visiting the country house for an Empire Day celebration as a child in 1919 when it was still in its pomp. His mother had friends working there and he was allowed inside. What he can’t acknowledge, and what the film takes a long time to tell us about, is his vicious resentment and loathing of his upper class patrons.
Abrahamson shows Gleeson as the type who will always lurk in the corner at any social event. He is an awkward and repressed man but seemingly a decent and sympathetic one. With his red hair and pale face, he is not handsome at all. Nor is he charming but he does have a good bedside manner. He is the type others feel comfortable confiding in but who will rarely share any secrets about himself.
The Ayres family, the owners of Hundreds, are in dire financial straits. They can’t afford the death duties on the house. The son of the family, Roderick (Will Poulter), is scarred and near crippled by war wounds. The mother, Mrs Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) is haughty in a Miss Havisham-like way but even she is struggling to keep up appearances.
The daughter, Caroline (Ruth Wilson), is spirited and intelligent but seems to have been left behind by the world. Their once grand home isn’t just shabby and falling apart. It appears to be haunted. Mrs Ayres’ beloved daughter Susan (‘Suki’), who came face to face with Faraday on his visit to the house, died as a child. Her spirit seems to be behind the strange and terrifying happenings in the house.
Abrahamson shows an anthropologist’s eye in the detail with which he depicts the aristocratic family fallen on hard times but desperately trying to cling to its status and dignity. The Ayres can’t pay their bills. They’ve lost the “trick of company” but they have their codes of behaviour.
Try as he might, Faraday can’t crack them. In their eyes, he will always be a “common village boy.” Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay picks up on the tiny mannerisms and tics of speech that distinguish the Ayres from less well-born outsiders like Faraday.
This is as much an account of a thwarted love affair as it is a ghost story. If it wasn’t so awkward, there would be a certain humour in Faraday’s courtship of Caroline. He is gauche but very dogged. The misfortunes that multiply around her give him his chance. It is not clear, though, whether he is in love with her or is looking to control her.
The mood here is similar to that in The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s film adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn Of The Screw. We don’t see any monsters. The terror is in the minds of the protagonists.
Abrahamson includes a few familiar devices from more conventional haunted house stories – bells in the servants’ quarters that ring of their own accord, doors that will suddenly slam shut, fires that start from nowhere. Generally, though, the creaks aren’t in the night but are in the tormented psyches of the film’s main protagonists.
The Little Stranger doesn’t scare us as often as might have been expected but it is still a disturbing affair. It’s a ghost story in which politics, class and money are the most frightening elements. Domhnall Gleeson may be best known for playing General Hux in Star Wars but he was superb as the traumatised, shell-shocked AA Milne in last year’s Goodbye Christopher Robin.
He gives an equally affecting performance here as the repressed and uptight Dr Faraday. He is matched by Ruth Wilson as Caroline, the “awfully brainy” upper class girl treated in such chauvinistic fashion by all the men around her. Wilson shows us Caroline’s resilience, her passion and her fatalism. She is as much a prisoner in the house as any princess in a castle in a fairy tale.
The Little Stranger has received a very muted response in the US, where it was released late last month. It is too idiosyncratic and subdued to appeal to fans of the teen-oriented horror movies that dominate the box office. Abrahamson’s approach is the polar opposite to that found in Jason Blum movies. This, though, is a consummately crafted and very subtle film which ends with quite a kick.
'The Little Stranger' is in cinemas from 21 September
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