Film Review: ‘The Little Stranger’

There's a ghost in the walls of Lenny Abrahamson's elegiac period mystery, but it's Ruth Wilson's performance that does the real haunting.

Lenny Abrahamson
Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill
Release Date:
Aug 31, 2018

Rated R  1 hour 51 minutes

“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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Little Stranger'

Reviewed at 20th Century Fox screening room, London, June 19, 2018. Running time: 111 MIN.

Production: (U.K.-Ireland) A Focus Features (in U.S.)/Pathé (in U.K.) release of a Pathé, Film4, Ingenious Media presentation of a Potboiler Prods. production in association with Element Pictures, Irish Film Board. (International sales: Pathé International, London.) Producers: Gail Egan, Andrea Calderwood, Ed Guiney. Executive producers: Cameron McCracken, Daniel Battsek, Andrew Lowe, Tim O'Shea. Co-producer: Anita Overland.

Crew: Director: Lenny Abrahamson. Screenplay: Lucinda Coxon, adapted from the novel by Sarah Waters. Camera (color): Ole Bratt Birkeland. Editor: Nathan Nugent. Music: Stephen Rennicks.

With: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill, Oliver Zetterström, Kate Phillips, Dixie Egerickx, Josh Dylan.

More Film

  • Issa Rae Portrait

    Issa Rae Developing Re-Imagining of Crime Thriller 'Set It Off'

    “Insecure” star and co-creator Issa Rae is in early development on a re-imagining of New Line’s crime thriller “Set If Off,” which starred Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica Fox and Kimberly Elise. Rae will produce with plans to star in the project. Syreeta Singleton and Nina Gloster have been hired to pen the script. [...]

  • Thomas Golubic8th Annual Guild of Music

    Guild of Music Supervisors President: 'The Economics of the Job Don't Work Anymore'

    The Guild of Music Supervisors (GMS) hosted its 5th annual “State of Music in Media” conference on Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Los Angeles Film School. Featuring a wide array of panel discussions on all manner of issues related to music in film, television and advertising, the confab drew top composers, music supervisors, licensing and [...]

  • Gay Chorus Deep South

    Film News Roundup: Documentary 'Gay Chorus Deep South' Bought for Awards Season Release

    In today’s film news roundup, the documentaries “Gay Chorus Deep South” and “Tread” find homes, Tobin Bell’s latest horror film completes production and Emilio Insolera joins “355.” ACQUISITIONS MTV Documentary Films has acquired “Gay Chorus Deep South” for release during the fall for awards season consideration. Directed by David Charles Rodrigues, the film world premiered [...]

  • Bad Education

    What 'Bad Education' Taught Us About the Slow Toronto Film Festival Market

    “Bad Education,” a dramedy starring Hugh Jackman as the embezzling superintendent of district of schools in Long Island, N.Y., was set to be this year’s “I, Tonya.” The movie has the same biting tone, shifting between comedy and tragedy. It received strong reviews out of the Toronto Film Festival. And like “I, Tonya,” it even [...]

  • For web story

    Toronto: Sony Pictures Classics Buys 'The Burnt Orange Heresy' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Sony Pictures Classics has nabbed the rights to “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” Variety has learned. The indie label plans to release the film in 2020. The Italian-American thriller was directed by Giuseppe Capotondi and stars Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger and Donald Sutherland. Scott Smith adapted Charles Willeford’s novel of the same name, transporting [...]

  • Thomasin McKenzie and Essie Davis

    Thomasin McKenzie and Essie Davis to Star in 'Justice of Bunny King'

    Essie Davis, star of “The Babadook” and autumn festival hit “Babyteeth,” and “Jojo Rabbit” co-star Thomasin McKenzie will headline upcoming drama “The Justice of Bunny King.” The film, now shooting in New Zealand, is a triumph over adversity tale about women fighting their way back from the bottom of society. It is the debut feature [...]

  • Calm With Horses

    Nick Rowland Talks About Toronto Debut Film 'Calm With Horses'

    “Calm with Horses,” which made its world premiere in Toronto’s TIFF in the Discovery section, is the feature directorial debut of Nick Rowland (Amazon series “Ripper Street”), and stars Barry Keoghan (Marvel’s upcoming “The Eternals,” “Dunkirk”), Cosmo Jarvis (“Annihilation”), and Niamh Algar (BBC’s “The Virtues”). The script, which was adapted from Colin Barrett’s short story [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content