“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.