21 September 2018

THE LITTLE STRANGER

The Little Stranger opens in the UK and Ireland to a wealth of critical acclaim


The Little Stranger review: One of the most original British horror films of recent times
★★★★
The Independent
Geoffrey Macnab

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 — the power of suggestion
★★★★
Nigel Andrews
The Financial Times

Horror thrillers are teasing duels between the known and unknown. We want their mysteries explained; yet simultaneously we don’t. Explanation can be so banal. Some films present the perfect solution. Keep the audience teased. Right up to, and possibly including, the end.

What on earth is happening, for instance, in Hundreds Hall, the decaying English mansion in The Little Stranger? Dr Faraday, cold, shy and neurotic (another repressed Englishman master-crafted by Ireland’s Domhnall Gleeson of Goodbye Christopher Robin), ministers to the tormented lady of the house ( Charlotte Rampling), the war-disfigured son (Will Poulter) and even the malingering maid. The rational but troubled daughter (Ruth Wilson) is the only human easy to handle, so Faraday courts her. His mum used to work in the Hall. Here might be a leg up into the upper class. It is 1948, when such things mattered to some. The storm clouds of socialism are gathering — including the birth of the National Health Service — and Faraday, even unwittingly, wants to play on with the ghosts of the past. Ghosts? Might they include Rampling’s little daughter, dead in childhood? Or is some other spirit rattling the upstairs doors, ringing the servant bells, inspiring a nasty accident to befall another little girl at a party?

Sarah Waters’ novel (Man Booker-shortlisted) delivers the subtle frissons to director Lenny Abrahamson. He’s the right man: he makes spooked human comedies/dramas tinged with apocalypse (Frank, Room). Shades of The Innocents (ghosts as psychic projections of the haunted) and Don’t Look Now (little daughter lost) stalk this house. The story doesn’t require visible ghouls. It requires hint, suggestion and a kind of pressure-building restraint.

Cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland’s muted colours match the mansion’s peeling pastels. Once or twice a fog seems to creep in, opacity’s democratic pall routing the hierarchical contrasts of chiaroscuro.

With Gleeson, the female stars clinch this drama of dread and desperation. Rampling, bereavement-haunted, seems to be gnawing herself to death without moving a muscle. Wilson plays a whole set of subtle variations on “normalcy”, their notes encrypting fear, frigidity, passion, longing and — finally perhaps (but watch this ghost space) — the triumph of self-liberation.



Film review: The Little Stranger
★★★★
Daily Mail
Brian Viner

It is 1948. Hundreds Hall in Warwickshire has belonged to the Ayres family for centuries, but crippling death duties have turned it into a slowly crumbling wreck.

'The Labour government won't be happy until we're begging for our lives on street corners,' grunts Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter), a dreadfully disfigured war veteran, who lives in the house with his brisk, spinster sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and their grand matriarch of a mother (Charlotte Rampling).

The film opens with a village doctor arriving to treat the family maid, Betty (Liv Hill). This is Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), whose late mother was herself once a servant at Hundreds Hall.

Faraday has broken free of his working-class origins. But as he befriends the family, and in particular Caroline, he can never quite escape the nuances of the English class system.

In some striking ways, the story, based on the 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, is reminiscent of L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between.

Hundreds Hall is a place full of memories, not all of them pleasant. Faraday is fixated by the recollection of a boyhood visit to the house, nearly 30 years earlier, while the family appear to be haunted by another Ayres daughter, Susan, who died as a child.

All this coalesces into an effective blend of ghost story, social history and psychological thriller, which is no less compelling for being rather relentlessly gloomy.

Gleeson reprises the repressed Englishman role that he performed in last year's Goodbye Christopher Robin, except more so.

He possibly could have injected just a little more animation into stiff Dr Faraday, who generally makes an Easter Island statue look like a song-and-dance man. But maybe that's the point. In the parlance of the time, he's rather a queer cove.

At any rate, director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon have done a fine and powerful job with their source material and are rewarded with one truly mesmerising performance.

All the acting is good, but Wilson, as dutiful, unhappy Caroline, stands apart.



The Little Stranger review: A very British ghost story that is compellingly strange rather than scary
★★★★
Evening Standard
Charlotte O'Sullivan

For fans of the uncanny, revenge is a dish best served with no hands. Think of Magneto, Matilda or Carrie. These characters, initially marginalised and abused, use their hurt feelings and indignant brains to bring the powerful to heel. The Little Stranger (an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel) contains just such an upstart. Yet it’s only at the end that we discover whose mind is running the show. (The film, in case you’re wondering, works even better on second viewing.)

The Ayres family live in a once grand Warwickshire mansion (imagine a beautiful mouth full of black teeth). Angela (Charlotte Rampling) is still traumatised by the loss of Suki, her preternaturally attractive little daughter. Son Roderick has had his body and nerves shattered in the Second World War. Daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) is plain. That’s not actually a tragedy, but people act as if it is.

By the way, in the book, Caroline’s legs are “unshaven”. It’s a shame that quirky detail doesn’t make it into the film, but let’s not split hairs. The point is, the family are failing to keep up appearances and worse is to come. In a shockingly vivid scene, a pretty girl is savaged in their home.

Our narrator, the pallid local doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson, excellent), knows all about the Ayres family; his mother once worked for them as a maid. He’s clever and diligent. He’s also kind to the poor and respectful towards the Ayres’ current drudge, Betty (newcomer Liv Hill, a revelation). But can he stop the haunting of Hundreds Hall?

Faraday, never allowed to forget he’s a prole, is a great character. Sometimes, as if unable to decide whether to swoon or seethe, he goes into a kind of trance, which the camera feasts on.

Caroline is even better, stomping through her shabby home like a farmer who’s just spotted a dead sheep. Wilson never overdoes the galumphing; Caroline’s playfulness and loneliness are conveyed just as keenly. Lenny Abrahamson’s last film, which reworked Emma Donoghue’s Room, earned Brie Larson a best actress Oscar. Wilson deserves a nomination at the very least.

The Little Stranger has been described as a very British ghost story. Abrahamson (who’s Irish) has now adapted two books by out-and-proud lesbians. He’s fascinated by what insiders fear. He’s not interested in making us jump (actually, he tries it once and bungles it). If you love strange little things, you’ll be smitten.


Film Review The Little Stranger
★★★★
Dan Jolin
Time Out

Lenny Abrahamson adapts Sarah Waters’ ghost story into an understated but satisfyingly spooky snapshot of class in post-War England.
Director Lenny Abrahamson knows how to turn small spaces into big drama. His last film (‘Room’) focused on a single, small shed. The one before (‘Frank’) primarily took place in a remote music-studio cabin. With ‘The Little Stranger’ – adapted from Sarah Waters’ gothic novel – he’s expanded to the rather grander scale of an old, English manor house. But it feels no less effectively claustrophobic.

That manor house is Hundreds Hall, a decaying, 18th-century estate whose old-money residents, the Ayres family, can barely manage its upkeep during the late ’40s. When their sole maid falls ill, they summon Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a shy, awkward fellow, who soon confesses to having a lifelong obsession with the crumbling mansion since visiting during his childhood and befriends the eldest of the Ayers offspring, the earthy, practical Caroline (Ruth Wilson).

But as the stiff, white-collar doctor draws closer to the welly-wearing Caroline and begins to rather creepily exercise his aspiration for the life of the landed gentry, it also becomes evident there is a malevolent presence lurking in the shadows of Hundreds Hall – something seemingly set on accelerating House Ayres’ decline.

True to Waters’ book, Abrahamson valiantly resists turning ‘The Little Stranger’ into a full-on horror show, teasing its ghostly strands by delicate degrees, while Gleeson and Wilson’s increasingly uncomfortable relationship occupies the bulk of your attention. Those hoping for ‘Insidious’-like shocks and jump scares may find their patience tested, but to succumb to such frustration is missing the film’s fine point: there may possibly be a spectral threat here, but this is really a story about people haunted by something very different, but just as intangible: namely, class.




Film Review The Little Stranger
★★★★
Andy Lea
The Express

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson allows dread to build very slowly in this handsome period chiller.

In the opening scene, Abrahamson, nominated for an Oscar in 2016 for Room, seems to be setting up a typical upstairs, downstairs drama.

It is 1948 and we are gazing upon Hundreds Hall, a mansion in rural Warwickshire, through the awestruck eyes of Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson).

It is the first time the good doctor has entered the gates since he was a child when his now-deceased mother worked there as a maid.

Like all aristocrats, the Ayres family is suffering under the Labour government's death taxes. But the doctor is still transfixed by the crumbling mansion.

Faraday is making a house call after being informed that one of the servants has been taken ill.

"One of?" laughs Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter), the master of the house and a former RAF pilot who was badly burned in combat during the Second World War. "You'll see."

It turns out that the ailing Betty (Liv Hill) is now the only servant who is working in this once-thriving country estate.

Like all aristocrats, the Ayres family is suffering under the Labour government's death taxes. But the doctor is still transfixed by the crumbling mansion.

A series of flashbacks hint at the root of this obsession.

As a child he stole into the house and on a strange impulse broke a plaster flower off one of the ornate cornices.

This crime was witnessed by the doctor's mother and Susan (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), Roderick's long-dead sister. It was a crime that horrified his mother and she could never forgive him for it.

Before leaving the house, Faraday meets Mrs Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), Roderick's haughty mother. He also discovers that Roderick's hardworking sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) is the one who is really running the mansion.

Slowly, an awkward romance begins to spark between the stuffy doctor and the free-spirited aristocrat.

As the class divisions begin to blur, strange incidents start to happen in the house. A girl is left horribly injured at a dinner party and strange symbols start appearing on the walls.

The doctor tries to find rational explanations. But as the strange occurrences pile up, Faraday's stiff upper lip appears to quiver.

In the finale, Abrahamson resorts to the twists and turns of the typical haunted house movie. But it is that slow build-up that will stay with you.