It’s hard not to feel bad for the marketing team behind a film when faced with something like The Little Stranger – one part psychological thriller, two parts post-war drama and one part Domhnall Gleeson’s admirably expressive moustache, the film flits between tones or genres within the same scene or a single conversation and, while the end result is somewhat effective, it’s almost impossible to categorise.
Adapted by director Lenny Abrahamson from Sarah Waters’ best-selling novel, The Little Stranger follows the troubled Ayres family as they deal with the changing times post-World War II, whether that’s navigating brother Roderick’s (Will Poulter) significant physical and mental scars, his mother’s (Charlotte Rampling) repressed grief over a daughter who died before her other children were born, or simply trying to keep the family’s estate from being sold off piece by piece to the highest bidder.
The film belongs to Ruth Wilson’s Caroline, who invites local doctor Faraday (Gleeson) to the house in order to check on their only remaining maid. Stuck in the servant’s quarters alone, Betty (Liv Hill) hates the house for its increasing decrepity and strange atmosphere, and the hostile vibe at first seems down to master of the house Roderick as he struggles to deal with his PTSD.
We soon learn that Faraday has past experience with the house, and he begins to ingratiate himself with the family as a helping hand before transitioning to something more familiar, and possibly more sinister.
On the one hand, The Little Stranger is almost unbearably spooky, building tension from the moment Faraday enters the house and choosing moments throughout to transition into full-on ghostly horror, but it’s the storylines woven in between that keep it from being a traditional spook-fest. While the audience is constantly aware that something grisly must be on its way, they’re also expected to invest in the budding relationship between Faraday and Caroline.
The performances are what make it worthwhile in the end, with Poulter especially giving his all to an unexpected and magnetic turn that steals the show whenever he’s around. Gleeson’s choices are more inscrutable and Faraday a less obviously showy role, but the film’s sense of mounting dread depends on him more than anyone else.
After Room, we know that Abrahamson can make good use of a very specific space and, for that matter, that he’s well-versed in making a seemingly endless environment seem increasingly claustrophobic. In that film, it was the outside world that was so stifling for the main characters, and The Little Stranger shows the Ayres’ expansive house and grounds as oppressive and always in danger of imprisoning its occupants.
We see the house alternately in its former glory and its current decay, as Faraday sinks into his memories of the day he was allowed there as a young boy. He describes the place as a paradise – the gateway to a world to which he doesn’t belong – but the years have not been kind. The characters are each holding on to a time lost, whether that’s tied to architecture itself or to the innocence lost in wartime.
But the split focus between whatever’s going on with the estate and the characters’ interactions with one another don’t serve the film well, distracting from one while dealing with the other and never fully exploring either element. It’s hard not to long for a version that does away with the explicit horror elements or, alternatively, one that goes for straight drama.
Ambiguity is one thing, but the ‘is it the house or our own internal demons?’ conceit only really lands if the audience is left with enough pieces of the puzzle to complete it on their own.
The Little Stranger finds an admirable amount of atmosphere and intrigue amidst very little plot and, while the performances and stylish direction make this worth a recommendation on their own, those expecting a straight ghost story will be left disappointed.
The Little Stranger is in UK cinemas from Friday.