An ominous chill hangs so persistently over Lenny Abrahamson’s period drama The Little Stranger that you’re liable to feel it in your bones. It hints unsettlingly at high emotions, corrupting passions and bloody memories; the fact that we fail to see these things onscreen doesn’t entirely mean that they’re absent. This makes the movie mostly gripping, and only occasionally frustrating.
Based on Sarah Waters’ 2009 Gothic novel, the story takes place in the English countryside not long after World War II. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is a doctor called to the care of a young servant in the spacious Hundreds Hall, a sprawling manor home that has seen better days. The Ayres family, the once-wealthy owners of the Hundreds, are a haunted lot: Roderick (Will Poulter) was horribly disfigured during the war; his mother (Charlotte Rampling) still mourns the loss of her daughter Susan many years ago at the age of 8; the surviving daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) is a melancholy, standoffish introvert who seems to have given her life over to caring for her brother and mother. For his part, Faraday recalls the Ayres’ glory days with a mixture of wonder and unease: His mother used to be one of many servants at the Hundreds, and he remembers a happy, bustling Empire Day celebration in 1919 when he entered the house and became fascinated with it: “Nothing could have prepared me for the spell it cast that day,” he tells us.
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Soon enough, the modest country doctor is caring for all the members of this once-great family. He’s curiously drawn to these people — particularly Caroline, who finds herself relying more and more on him and his steady, steely demeanor. But is his behavior the product of chin-up sturdiness or a kind of emotional constipation? And is his and Caroline’s growing attraction to each other something romantic, or more sinister? Gleeson’s clipped, haughty reserve admirably keeps us guessing.
Like many Gothic tales, The Little Stranger hangs tantalizingly between genres: It has elements of haunted house thriller, of doomed romance, of psychological thriller, of historical allegory. This also presumably makes it a hard sell, as it never quite fully becomes any of these things. Perhaps that’s why the film seems to be getting such a cursory, understated release — despite the fact that Abrahamson’s previous film was the widely acclaimed, Oscar-nominated Room. This sort of genre hybrid, one could argue, can be more effective on the page. I haven’t read Waters’ sprawling original, but I have read her other works, and the richness of detail in her writing generally precludes any question of classification; you’re just pulled along by the story and the immersive milieu.
But sometimes, marketing challenges can be artistic strengths. The Little Stranger captures a sense of gathering, inchoate dread that is all the more unsettling because it doesn’t fit into any easy genre categories. Abrahamson’s ability to maintain a mood of persistent unease keeps us hanging, and thinking. And the film’s constant atmosphere of stillness eventually becomes downright surreal: Everything in this movie seems to trend toward paralysis. So much so that if you told me that much of the finale was composed of actual freeze-frames rather than shots of great stillness, I’d probably believe you.
?There’s a fascinating idea in there. The Empire Day celebrations that we see repeatedly in flashback suggest a symbolic kick to the fate of Hundreds Hall. And the working-class Faraday’s fascination with it — along with the overall sense that in order for this massive home to survive, everything must be kept just so — evoke the notion of post-war British decline and various attempts to hang onto the idea of empire, to live in an empty, imagined past. I do wish Abrahamson had done more with all that, but he appears to be quite committed — maybe even too committed — to the tale’s in-between-ness and its chilliness. The Little Stranger’s face never breaks, and maybe that’s the point.