Film Review: The Little Stranger

A classy, quiet, cryptically sculptured ghost story clever enough to retain its mystery, 'The Little Stranger' will trigger post-show discussions and cerebral hangovers.
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“Walk away, Faraday,” advises an English country doctor in The Little Stranger to his impressionably young new assistant, who has become irretrievably mired in the miseries of a once-grand Warwickshire manor that’s fallen on decay and disrepair.

Doctor’s orders are thoroughly ignored by this physician who has no interest in healing himself. His given name is never given—even as an eight-year-old making his first fateful visit to Hundreds Hall, where his mum worked as a housemaid. The only thing that precedes his surname is his title: Doctor. You could call him X the Unknown because he becomes progressively more unknown as the story unravels.

The Little Strangerrepresents a step up for Lenny Abrahamson, one of the best of cinema’s emerging new directors. In 2015, he squeezed an Oscar (Brie Larson’s)—along with a nomination for himself—out of a 10x10-foot Room; now, he has a whole mansion to play with—and, fortuitously, it comes haunted, capable of scrambling the fragile psyche of the story’s central character as it did poor Julie Harris’ in The Haunting.

Hundreds Hall, viewed here circa 1948, has an aura akin to Norma Desmond’s dilapidated digs in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. “A neglected house gets an unhappy look,” Sunset’s Joe Gillis observed. “This one had it in spades. It was like that old woman in Great Expectations—that Miss Havisham, in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil, taking it out on the world because she’d been given the go-by.”

The long-gone-by inhabitants of Hundreds Hall have the quivering upper lip of Miss Havisham, delusional and depressed as befits an upper class that has lost its shine. Charlotte Rampling brings all her reserve and regality to the matriarch of the manse, Mrs. Ayres. Will Poulter hits the right hollow notes as the notional master of the house, Rod, tragically scared and stunted by a fiery encounter with the RAF. Both of them as well as their home are Scotch-Taped together by a deglamorized and moving Ruth Wilson, the spine and spinster of the place whose lesbian leanings throw a monkey wrench into Faraday’s hopes of marrying into the Ayres lineage.

There may or may not be another resident at Hundreds Hall wafting around the premises, triggering servant bells, setting off a vicious dog attack. The suggestion is strong that this very well could be the poltergeist version of Suki, Mrs. Ayres’ daughter, who died of diphtheria at age eight, shortly after meeting the boy Faraday.

Faraday, who advocates electromagnetism like the same-named British scientist who helped discover it, is played by two quite different actors—Domhnall Gleeson as a repressed thirty-something and Oliver Zetterstrom as a wide-eyed sub-teenager.

Lucinda Coxon proves to be the perfect person to adapt Sarah Waters’ neo-gothic novel of 2009, since her specialty is creating title characters where there’s a multiple choice of possibilities. The Danish Girl was either a portraitist of females (Oscar-winning Alicia Vikander) or her husband, a surgically reconstructed facsimile (Oscar-nominated Eddie Redmayne). Similarly, The Little Stranger could be a listless and lingering Suki or the grownup version of the eight-year-old boy she caught breaking off a plaster acorn from a picture frame to keep as a souvenir of his visit.

You decide. The Little Stranger invites debate and analysis long after viewing. Heady horror films with psychological tics and twists are few and far between, and this is the best one since The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s stylishly sinister 1961 edition of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Abrahamson even unwinds his like a novel.