The Little Stranger (R)

Horror 111 min. August 31, 2018
By Bilge Ebiri
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 don't 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.

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?

Like many Gothic tales, The Little Stranger hangs tantalizingly between genres: It has elements of haunted house thriller, doomed romance, psychological thriller, historical allegory. This also presumably makes it a hard sell, as it never quite fully becomes any of these things. And the film's constant atmosphere of stillness eventually becomes downright surreal: Everything in this movie seems to trend toward paralysis.
Lenny Abrahamson Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling Lucinda Coxon Focus Features

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