By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Will Poulter
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Written by Lucinda Coxon
This is less a review than a public service announcement for genre fans who might be lured by THE LITTLE STRANGER’s haunting-centric marketing campaign and the R rating for “disturbing bloody images.” The pieces are certainly in place for a chilling and psychologically disquieting yarn, but this is about as far from a horror film as a story of an unquiet spirit plaguing the residents of a gloomy mansion can possibly be.
Which would be fine if the more subtle drama that’s the real concern here was sufficiently compelling. Unfortunately, THE LITTLE STRANGER proves to be neither intellectually stimulating nor emotionally involving—a study of manners that remains remote throughout. The real disappointment is that it was directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who won richly deserved praise for ROOM a couple of years back. That psychological drama felt vital and urgent and packed more tension than many a true fear feature, so it’s a surprise that most of his new effort just lies there on screen. To be sure, this British-set tale, like many of its ilk, is concerned with repressed emotions, yet it falls way too hard on the wrong side of the divide between stiff upper lip and just being a stiff.
A major part of the issue is that there’s no way to connect with its protagonist, Dr. Faraday (Domnhall Gleeson), who is called to a countryside manse known as Hundreds Hall to tend to teenage housemaid Betty (Liv Hill). The film, based on Sarah Waters’ novel, is set shortly after WWII, and Faraday stays on to help Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter, the man who would have been Pennywise), who was disfigured and crippled on the battlefield. His real reason for hanging around, however, is Roderick’s sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson), though his attraction to her as a person is equaled or exceeded by the appeal of the opulence her family and environment represent—or once represented.
Years ago, Hundreds Hall was a thriving estate that Faraday visited as a child, taken with the wealth and possibilities of the place. Now, it’s a shadow of its former self, and a pall has fallen over the mansion and its few remaining residents. Indeed, the “ghost” in THE LITTLE STRANGER can be said to be the memory of more lavish times now decisively gone—and that will have to suffice, as any suggestion of an actual spectral presence doesn’t appear until well into the movie’s running time. There are a couple of unpleasant developments in the first hour, particularly a bloody scene in which a visiting little girl is attacked by a dog, but this comes and goes quickly and has little impact on the overall story at hand. At another point, a character sets half a room on fire, yet it’s put out quickly and offscreen (how? By whom?) and apparently leaves very little damage behind.
Shot in somber tones by cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland and unfolded at a funereal pace, THE LITTLE STRANGER seems hesitant to acknowledge, much less take advantage of, the scary and disturbing possibilities of its material. This only pays off when matriarch Mrs. Ayers (an underutilized Charlotte Rampling) becomes trapped and terrorized by the invisible presence in an upstairs room. Beyond that, the ghost is content to pull tame tricks like leaving little squiggle marks around the house and ringing all the servants’ bells at once, as if trying to get people’s attention in the midst of a movie in which it has been sidelined.
The front-and-center concern is Faraday’s growing fixation on Caroline and the vanished opulence of her family, which might have worked with a more demonstrative protagonist at its center. Yet as written and as played by Gleeson, Faraday remains opaque and distant, a literary conceit that might have worked on Waters’ pages but who possesses little on screen to sympathize with, or even pity. When he professes his love for Caroline, it’s difficult to tell if that ardor is true or if he’s just fooling himself, and for us to care which one is the case. Wilson fares better, giving an expressive reading of a woman trapped in an ever-crumbling legacy, and Poulter is also good as the emotionally and physically scarred Roderick (excellent prosthetics work here, designed by Sian Grigg), though he unceremoniously vanishes from the movie halfway through. By that point, whether you were in the mood for some supernatural action or relatable human interaction, you might be tempted to join him.