THE LITTLE STRANGER – Review
The title of the historical drama THE LITTLE STRANGER is the same as an old-fashioned way to reference a baby, as in “awaiting the arrival of a little stranger.” But there are no babies or ones on the way in this dark moody film, although there are some spooky goings-on about children in the dim, misty past, particularly the childhood remembrances of a visitor now returned as a doctor to care for the members of the aristocratic Ayers family in their dark crumbling mansion.
Abrahamson’s previous film was ROOM, an acclaimed drama that was a scary, taut thriller and a deep psychological drive into the experience of a woman and child held captive for years by an abuser. That drama was so riveting, it is no surprise expectations were high for this one.
However, anyone expecting either another ROOM, or even THE OTHERS or JANE EYRE, will be disappointed with director Lenny Abrahamson’s THE LITTLE STRANGER. A moody, brooding historic drama set in 1930s England, the film is filled with foreboding but leaves the viewer in suspense.
Doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is called to Hundreds Hall, the once-grand mansion of the aristocratic Ayres family mansion in rural England to tend to an illness. When the doctor arrives at the home of the old aristocratic family, he is shocked by the state of the house. He is greeted at the door by Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson), who scoffs at the doctor’s surprise that it is not one of the servants opening the door. The only servant the once-wealthy family now employs is a young girl, who works as maid and cook, and who, it turns out, is the patient. Having dealt kindly with the servant girl, who was suffering from nervousness and home-sick more than anything, the doctor offers to treat the family heir, Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter), a World War I veteran badly burned and disfigured, and still battling a painful leg injury. The family is reluctant at first to accept Dr. Faraday’s offer but finally agrees when the doctor tells them there would be no charge as it would help with some research he is doing on a particular treatment.
How the mighty have fallen and the shifting fate of the British upper class between the wars is a theme in this drama but not the only one. That change in social structure has been touched on in GOSFORD PARK and the BBS series “Downton Abbey” but this is a much darker version. But a major focus is not on the fall of the house of Ayres, a proud family still regarded warmly by the locals, but on the psychological goings-on with the doctor. His mother had been a servant in the grand house in its heyday, and a childhood visit to the house for a grand garden party instilled in him a fascination with the Ayres and a longing for the house. As Dr. Faraday becomes a part of the Ayres family’s lives, strange tensions arrives and strange occurrences begin to unfold.
THE LITTLE STRANGER certainly has the goods as far as cast, with Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, and Will Poulter in the lead roles. There are disturbing things and creepy occurrences. If only the film had a more focused script and director Abrahamson had a better sense of what he wanted his film to be. As it is, it wavers between ghost story, Gothic thriller, moody historic commentary on the fall of the British class system. Because it keeps hinting it is one or the others of these genres, it fails to gel around anything and leaves the audience feeling unsatisfied and somehow cheated of a promised emotional payoff. It is tense, moody, edgy throughout until it ends with no real resolution or even a big scare.
What’s more, the gripping trailer suggests an eerie ghost story or tale of buried secrets in a family of British aristocrats sinking into decay and financial ruin in the 1930s. The arrival of a local doctor into this closed, musty world hinted at scary, disturbing things. The film is based on the novel by Sarah Waters, adapted for the screen by Lucinda Coxon, who wrote THE DANISH GIRL. Why all this talent didn’t produce a more successful suspense film is the real mystery.
Cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland also delivers the goods, as does the excellent cast. Domhnall Gleeson is chilling and intriguing as the restrained yet charming doctor. Charlotte Rampling gives a fine performance as the chilly aristocrat, still vividly aware of the class difference between her family and the doctor, but unfailingly polite as she drops comments to remind him of his “place,” no matter how kind he has been to them. Ruth Wilson’s Caroline, on the other hand, comprehends how the world and their circumstances have changed, in a way neither her mother nor her brother do. Will Poulter is all pent-up frustration as her brother Roderick, the lord of the manor by inheritance, struggling to live up to family obligations while battling physical and mental pain from his war injuries, PTSD, and a growing madness.
The film has all the authentic period detail and perfect locations one could wish. Events unfold in a decaying manor house that was clearly once grand, grandeur we see in periodic flashbacks as Dr. Faraday returns time and again to memories of his childhood visit to the mansion where his mother worked as a servant, a visit none of the family recalls.
Through atmospheric photography, fine acting and taut pacing, THE LITTLE STRANGER successfully builds suspense to a fever pitch yet never pulls the trigger on all that build-up. It raises questions throughout yet never answers them, leaving at most hints about possible answers. The film feels like it wants to be Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” but can’t figure out how to get there, leaving the audience lost as well.
So many things are right about this eerie film, including the outstanding cast, that it is doubly frustrating when the film appears to just end without real resolution. As a fan of both historical dramas and Gothic ghost stories, I should be the right audience for this film. Yet, the film felt disappointing by its end. After building up a nail-biting suspense and hinting a hidden horrors, psychological or supernatural, it fails to commit to either of those paths, wavering between them until it merely rolls to an unsatisfying conclusion. There is death but no catharsis. Secrets remain hidden and no questions are answered.
THE LITTLE STRANGER opens Friday, August 31 at the Tivoli Theater.
RATING: 3 out of 5 stars