05 September 2018

THE LITTLE STRANGER

Praise for THE LITTLE STRANGER as the first reviews break.

THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

A slow-building shiver of a movie, “The Little Stranger” tells a familiar but pleasurably engrossing story. Adapted from a 2009 novel by the Welsh author Sarah Waters, this atmospheric postwar gothic unfolds at a crumbling English manor where the repressed have decided to return — not with a vengeance, exactly, but with motives shrouded in uncertainty and sorrow.

It’s a haunting that unfolds through the steady, skeptical gaze of a local doctor who is at once seduced by the grandeur of this country estate and blind to its lurking phantoms.
Bad frights, good manners, the timeless clash between rationalism and belief: We are in unassailable if hardly original dramatic territory. And the gifted Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, no doubt aware of the hovering specters of “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Haunting of Hill House” and their various literary and cinematic descendants, does not commit the folly of trying to outdo them. Until its unnerving third act, “The Little Stranger” plays less like a horror movie than a drama about a family’s steady unraveling, punctuated by intimations of a deeper, weirder unease.

Abrahamson’s weapon of choice is understatement. There are no whooshing camera movements, no cheap shocks, no sudden bursts of computer-generated ectoplasm. A pervasive gloom is achieved and sustained using little more than meticulous underlighting, moldering production design and stately compositions that capture the house’s long-faded beauty and its cavernous emptiness. The director has more visual space to work with than he did in the first half of “Room,” his Oscar-winning 2015 film about a mother and son living in captivity, but he proves adept here at evoking a more implicit, psychological kind of confinement.

He also reaffirms his gift for dramatizing a story told by a curiously unreliable narrator, and distilling some but not all the author’s vocal nuances into cinematic form. This is no small feat, since the stiffly restrained Dr. Faraday (a fine Domhnall Gleeson) is hardly the most emotionally expressive of protagonists, and Lucinda Coxon’s sharp script wisely refuses the crutch of voice-over. Instead the movie simply keeps us close to Faraday’s side as he’s brought in to examine a nervous young maid, Betty (Liv Hill), at the venerable Hundreds Hall, which he fondly recalls having visited as a boy after the end of World War I.

Nearly 30 years later, England has emerged from another global cataclysm, and Hundreds Hall, not unlike Brideshead Castle before it, has fallen on hard times. So have the house’s surviving residents, particularly Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter), a former pilot still recovering from serious war wounds. His mother, Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling, steely as ever), and his sister, Caroline (a splendid Ruth Wilson), maintain sharp wits and a chipper demeanor even in the wake of their dwindling fortune, which makes it inevitable that they will have to give up their estate.

Faraday quickly becomes enough of a family friend — and perhaps something more, in Caroline’s case — to object to the idea of their selling Hundreds Hall, a feeling rooted in his childhood attachment to the place. A few recurring flashbacks illuminate that boyhood visit, during which we glimpse Mrs. Ayres’ eldest child, Susan, who fell ill and died shortly thereafter. When strange things start to happen back in the present — an intimate cocktail party that turns startlingly violent, a sudden decline in Roderick’s condition — you brace yourself for Susan’s ghost to make an appearance.

She does and she doesn’t. Like some of the best ghost stories, “The Little Stranger” is in no hurry to solve its own mystery. Even when Abrahamson allows the steady drip of tension to finally give way to door-rattling, glass-shattering terror, there remains something fundamentally oblique and unreadable about precisely what is haunting the Ayres estate. I’ve developed my own hunch, based particularly on the names Waters gives her characters, one of which directly invokes the dramatis personae of a famous Agatha Christie novel.

But hunches alone may not satisfy those moviegoers for whom nothing is scarier, or more off-putting, than a little narrative ambiguity. Happily, “The Little Stranger” has more than whodunit on its mind. Some of Abrahamson’s earlier films, including “Garage” and “What Richard Did,” have shown an acute sensitivity to class, and here he duly acknowledges the envy that has driven Faraday, a housemaid’s son, into the company of an aristocratic family whose enviable way of life is swiftly passing away.

A fascinating counterpoint soon emerges in the form of Caroline, who seems all too ready to bid farewell to the good old days. Played by Wilson in the movie’s most memorable performance, Caroline is a figure of serene defiance, calmly and sometimes joyously pushing back against society’s dismissal of her as a hopeless spinster. She gives this ghost story its fiercely independent spirit.


THE NEW YORK TIMES

Hundreds Hall is the name of a grand pile of brick in Warwickshire, England, and if you’re moderately familiar with movies and television — “Downton Abbey,” “Crimson Peak,” the “Ghostbusters” reboot — you have no doubt seen hundreds like it. Its sprawling grounds and cavernous rooms evoke ancient aristocratic privilege, but by the late 1940s, when “The Little Stranger” takes place, that grandeur has begun to fade.

Dr. Faraday — we never seem to catch his first name — remembers it well. An ambitious provincial physician whose mother worked as a maid during the house’s glory days under the Ayres family, he looks back fondly on a summer day he spent there in 1919, when he was 8 years old and local commoners were invited to a fair. Now he finds himself treating the remaining members of the Ayreses, who are barely hanging onto their fast-decaying ancestral home.

Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is haunted by Hundreds Hall. The Hall itself also seems to be haunted, though it’s not always clear by what or whom. The best guess seems to be a little girl named Suki Ayres, who died shortly after Faraday’s long-ago visit. Her mother (Charlotte Rampling) still lives there, along with her two surviving, grown-up children: Roderick (Will Poulter), who was badly wounded in World War II, and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), “the cleverest of the lot” (according to a family friend), who drifts toward eccentric spinsterhood. The staff has been winnowed to one, a young woman named Betty (Liv Hill), who figures out that something creepy is going on long before anyone else seems to have a clue.

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson (“Room”) and adapted by Lucinda Coxon from Sarah Waters’s skillfully written Gothic novel, “The Little Stranger” is for much of its running time more interested in the sociological and psychological implications of Faraday’s encounter with the Ayreses and their real estate than with any overtly supernatural doings. Faraday, who serves as a possibly unreliable voice-over narrator, is buttoned up as tight as a waistcoat, only sometimes betraying the ruthless effort that his sang-froid requires. He is always aware of being an interloper — a commoner promoted to “one of us” ironically or in emergencies — and his attempts to fit in make this strangeness more glaring.

Mr. Gleeson is adept at this double game. His face is as sharp as a hawk’s but somehow also as soft and unformed as a fledgling sparrow’s. Faraday makes a practice of keeping all feeling in check, presenting himself both as a rational man of science and as the possessor of an exemplary stiff upper lip. As news of the political weather buzzes in the background — the advent of the National Health Service; land sales and tax policies promoted by Clement Attlee’s Labour government — Faraday mourns the waning of old ruling-class prerogatives more plangently than the Ayreses themselves, who would seem to have more to lose. His loyalty to them is more than they deserve or desire.

The twisting and cracking of the British class system is always fascinating to observe, and “The Little Stranger” traces the details of its chosen moment of social change with precision and subtlety, and with its own layers of somewhat dubious nostalgia. Since it’s also a horror movie, subtlety can go only go so far, and the past becomes a trunk mined for spooky costumes and effects. There are a few jump scares and shocking images, but Mr. Abrahamson lets the dread build slowly, nudged along by Stephen Rennicks’s mournful, eerie score and Ole Bratt Birkeland’s brown-shadowed cinematography.

As Faraday draws closer to the Ayreses, a question starts to percolate. Are they just odd and miserable, or is something more sinister afoot? Poor Roderick, inwardly and outwardly maimed by the war, teeters floridly toward madness and alcoholism, but what about Caroline and her mother? Are they sheltering a sinister secret? And what does the specter of Suki want — if that is indeed what rattles the door frames and carves squiggles in the wainscoting.

As is usually the case in movies like this, the answer is not quite as intriguing as the queasy guesswork that precedes its revelation. But the ending is less of a letdown than it might have been, and the final shots are potent and provocative, sending you back over what came before with new ideas and questions. The twist has less to do with who is haunting whom than with spectral methods and motives, and with the fantasies of belonging that dwell within Hundreds Hall’s walls.


ROLLING STONE

The way Focus Features kept cancelling scheduled screenings of The Little Stranger made me think it had a stiff on its hands. Hardly. Though this meditation on the past — disguised as a haunted-house thriller — has its faults, the film is better than most of the junk cluttering the multiplex these days (looking at you, The Happytime Murders). Director Lenny Abrahamson earned much-deserved raves for 2015’s Room, which won a Best Actress Oscar for Brie Larson. So why sweep his latest, starring the talented likes of Ruth Wilson, Domhnall Gleason and Charlotte Rampling, under a rug?

Based on the 2009 a novel by Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger is perhaps hurt by a neo-Gothic atmosphere of dread that may lead audiences to expect cheap horror-show scares. But Abrahamson is far more interested in the bruised humanity of his characters. Gleeson brings hidden layers to the tightly-wound, perpetually glum Faraday, a Warwickshire country doctor of humble origins who finds himself called, in the summer of 1948, to make a professional visit to Hundreds Hall, a mansion where his mother once worked as a maid. Home to the Ayres family for centuries, the Hall has seen better days — you can almost smell it decaying. But the family matriarch, Angela (Rampling, reliably superb) still rules as if by divine right. Angela’s son Roderick (Will Poulter) has returned from the war covered in burn scars that underscore his even more serious PTSD. His sister Caroline (Wilson) appears normal enough for even the austere Faraday to develop an instant crush — but at Hundreds Hall, looks can be deceiving. Has Angela really ever gotten over her first daughter, Susan, who died years before at the tender age of eight? Is it the ghost of Susan making the floors groan, filling the halls with a banging noise and ringing a servant’s bell from an empty room?

It only sounds like a setup for a mid-century Paranormal Activity. Abrahamson cleverly uses the house as a metaphor for crumbling sanity. Witness the effect on Faraday, who is drawn back to his childhood when he (the titular little stranger) visited the Hall in its heyday, and felt “its cool, fragrant spaces” fill his dreams. In flashback, Abrahamson recreates the day of that glorious visit, with young Faraday (Oliver Zetterstrom) imagining himself part of a world out of reach.

The class system and its ruthless pecking order is something Abrahamson sews into the fabric of his film. Faraday’s courtship of Caroline is just another way to belong. Kudos to Wilson (how has she not won an Emmy for her brilliant work on The Affair?), who builds what seems at first like a peripheral character into the defiant soul of the movie. In the final scenes, Abrahamson reverts to the twists and tropes of the typical ghost story. But before that, he uses shivery suspense and a keen sense of character to craft The Little Stranger into a hypnotic and haunting tale of how the past can grab hold of the flesh-and-blood present and squeeze. Don’t let this mesmerizing mystery slip between the cracks of studio neglect and marketing indifference. It’s spellbinding.


THE WASHINGTON POST
Most haunted houses, at least in movies, share basic qualities: They are empty, dilapidated and the floorboards creak a little too much. This blueprint affords filmmakers the opportunity to create a sense of foreboding, usually culminating in a jump scare and a jolt of music.

At first glance, “The Little Stranger” seems to have been shaped by the same cookie cutter used for countless haunted-house films before it. But director Lenny Abrahamson is far more ambitious than that. His follow-up to 2015’s “Room” — which earned the Irish filmmaker an Oscar nomination for best director — is a character-driven psychological thriller, one whose larger implications will trouble your mind, like a ghost.

We cross the threshold of the house in question, Hundreds Hall, with one Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a kindly country doctor. World War II has recently ended, and Faraday has returned to the village of his youth to take up private practice with a partner. His patient at the Hall — once resplendent, but now fallen into disrepair — is the lone maid (Liv Hill) for the lady of the house, Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), who lives with her adult children Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and Roddy (Will Poulter), a badly wounded veteran. Faraday soon ingratiates himself with the family, treating Roddy’s wounds and developing a friendship with Caroline.

The house also has a mysterious quality, one that no one can quite articulate. Before long, everyone living there begins to worry they might be going mad.

Adapted from a 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, the screenplay by playwright Lucinda Coxon drips with quiet menace. Faraday, who narrates the film, returns again and again to a formative moment from his childhood: one in which the still-grand mansion — where his mother once worked as a maid — captured his imagination. On one level, class has informed his lifelong obsession with the house: the middle-class Faradays only knew such opu­lence as outsiders.

Faraday’s relationship with the Ayreses complicates the drama. At the beginning of the story, he’s almost like a servant, obeying their every whim. But soon he has become so indispensable that Caroline and the others begin to think of him as family. Gleeson’s finely crafted performance is key to this transformation — with his friendly yet decorous demeanor gradually revealing a manipulative edge.

“The Little Stranger” is a counter­intuitive choice for Abrahamson, who has never made a period film. But what’s more surprising is how this story doesn’t fit neatly into a simple genre. Thematically, it’s close to the director’s “Frank,” which also starred Gleeson, as the newest member of an underappreciated indie rock band. In both films, the actor plays an interloper entering insular worlds. He is the source of both films’ tension.

As a director, Abrahamson uses that sense of the detached observer as a scalpel, whittling away at our expectations of horror films until we have no choice but to look at — and really listen to — what is happening. It’s an approach that requires patience, on his part and ours, but the rewards are worth it.

At the heart of “The Little Stranger” is its ghost story, of sorts, one whose horror sequences build toward a sense of cautious inevitability, with the methodical pace of a figure wandering a dimly lit hallway. These moments are more creepy than gory or intense, and what makes them effective is their ambiguity. There are always two explanations for what we have seen: one scientific (typically offered by Faraday) and another suggestive of something more supernatural. The film’s best sequence is its shortest, with Caroline uttering a single word that throws all that we think we know into disarray.

Focus Features, it would seem, does not have the faith in “Little Stranger” that the film deserves, releasing it the end of August, a traditional dumping ground for genre films. But this slow-burn thriller — whose power lies in its dark, elusive nature — delivers few genuine scares, and more mannered, nuanced dialogue than answers. No matter what you make of the film’s final minutes, which are as open to interpretation as everything that has come before, each of the main characters has contributed to that sense of equivocation in ways that are deliciously macabre.

VARIETY
“Moldy” is not generally an adjective most filmmakers would like to hear directed at their work, yet it applies, rather eerily and gorgeously, to “The Little Stranger.” Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon’s refined, deliberate adaptation of Sarah Waters’ neo-Gothic novel has the sense, in style and mood, of having been discovered in a neglected cupboard of a stately home not unlike the one in which it takes place, covered in mossy growth that has left an inerasable sage-green patina on the print. Its characters, too, are dusted down from an era distant from our own, yet it’s clear they creaked with dejection and disuse even in their supposed prime. “The Little Stranger” may be elegantly fashioned as a haunted-house thriller, but the relationships at its core are spooked by sadness well before things start to go bump in the night.

That may prove a commercial stumbling block to what is otherwise, for Abrahamson, a fine, form-expanding follow-up to the Oscar-approved “Room.” Genre fans in the market for some old-school horror may be surprised to find an undeniably unsettling but sober-sided human study of very English class conflict and aspirational desire, the light supernatural swirlings of which mostly work to aggravate more earthly crises of loneliness, grief and stiff-upper-lipped romance. Adult audiences looking past the gothic trappings, however, will be rewarded with a heritage drama as delicate as the cobwebs in its corners — set a tad off-balance by Domhnall Gleeson’s miscasting in the central role of a shy working-class doctor fixated on the tangled domestic woes of his poshest clients, but given a bruised, beating heart by the superb Ruth Wilson, as his wounded object of affection.

“This house works on people,” says Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), withered lady of the manor at Hundreds Hall, a grand but gone-to-seed mansion in England’s Warwickshire district. “Specks of grit, ten years later, leave as pearls.” Her second statement is debatable: The “pearls” emerging from the place, including her trauma-stricken adult children Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson) and their plainly petrified young housemaid Bette (Liv Hill, a wonderfully expressive newcomer), are cracked and costume-quality at best, the family’s once-lavish fortunes having dwindled to scraps after the Second World War — which has also left Roderick (Will Poulter) disfiguringly battle-scarred, inside and out. Another daughter, Suki, never had the chance to leave, having been felled by diphtheria in childhood, though her spectre of angelic perfection hovers over her younger, less cherished siblings.

But Mrs. Ayres is right about the house’s influence: Hundreds Hall certainly does a number on Faraday (Gleeson), a local villager of humble stock whose mother once worked there as a servant. Enthralled by its opulence as a child, he retains his awe even as he’s invited in as the family physician. A cautious bond steadily builds between him and Caroline, a bright, jaded, friendless young woman amused by the good doctor’s romanticization of their plight, who dreams of a more modern, independent life beyond the Hall’s damp, weary walls. Faraday, for his part, can’t see why she’d want to leave; as their relationship hovers coyly on the brink of something less platonic, it’s unclear whether he’s attracted more to Caroline or the home that’s suffocating her.

Coxon’s patient, literate screenplay astutely preserves the tart class politics of Waters’ novel. The Labour government’s post-war austerity may have stripped the Ayres clan of their material privilege, yet Faraday remains wonderstruck by their legacy, desperate to attach himself to it by any means necessary. When Mrs. Ayres, having invited Faraday to make up the numbers at an ill-fated soiree, passingly refers to him as “one of us,” his sense of achievement is all too heartbreakingly palpable: Can he not see that the Ayreses are effectively living ghosts, left behind by a changing world and confined to the shuttered ruins of past glories? And when the Hall starts showing its own uncanny symptoms of haunting — squiggly scratch marks on the walls, bells ringing out of thin air — is he being warned off or beckoned? From a burgeoning National Health Service to a new housing estate rising from the Ayreses sold-off fields, signs of social progress surround Faraday, yet the onetime servant’s son remains oddly resistant to them all, still beholden to boyish fantasies of wealth.

Whether Gleeson is a slightly awkward fit as Faraday, or simply reading the character’s awkwardness, is hard to say. Poker-straight and sallow, with a neat, pale mustache that seems grown as a stand-in for doctorly authority, he brings the right streak of vulnerability to the doctor’s self-loathing conservatism — but still seems too callow for the part, particularly when the script calls for him to assert a decade’s life experience over Caroline. Either way, Wilson’s extraordinary performance rules the film, weaving a lifetime of accumulating disappointment into a single arched eyebrow. (Her look of droll, pitying disbelief when Faraday remarks on her beauty is a second-long masterclass.) Always best in parts with complex worry lines, Wilson brings an exquisitely ironed-in sense of rueful defeat to a character who would never deem herself sympathetic: She wears her markers of class, from clipped accent to confident gait, in brackets of apology throughout.

As for Hundreds Hall, it may have become critical cliché to refer to locations as characters, but given its shifting psychological impositions on the human ensemble, it’s hard not to see it as such. Production designer Simon Elliott wastes no ashy crevice or cornice of the space, distressing it to dazzling effect in spoiled, soiled shades of green and puce: You can practically see the smoke stains in the velvet upholstery, or the lush woodland murals in the drawing room rotting into real nature. Under the steady, composed gaze of d.p. Ole Bratt Birkeland, in certain shots, even the actors’ faces appear to succumb to verdigris — no accident, one suspects, in a creepingly paced film that takes its time to show how a ruined environment weathers those living, just barely, inside it.