Following his critically lauded 2015 drama Room, Lenny Abrahamson returns with a slow-burn, genre-bending film which is part period drama, part psychological drama and part gothic horror. Once again adapting from a Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, Abrahamson’s latest is brimming with chilly atmosphere and strong performances across the board, but is slightly let down by a narrative that lacks dramatic impetus.
The Little Stranger opens on Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a reserved country doctor who has returned to his home in Warwickshire to work. One of Faraday’s first callouts is to the once-grandiose Hundreds Hall which hosted many lavish, aristocratic parties and employed his own mother as a maid nearly thirty years ago. Nowadays, in 1948, the countryside estate is a dilapidated shadow of its former self, and its residents are on the decline too. A gloomy, unsettling aura hangs over the Ayres household, haunted by a past death in the family and the memory of their once idolised estate. Faraday’s long-term fascination with Hundreds Hall soon entangles him into the Ayres’ lives as he befriends lonely spinster Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and tends to the wounds of the mentally scarred and physically disfigured war veteran Roderick (Will Poulter). Elsewhere, matriarch of the house Mrs Ayers (Charlotte Rampling) experiences a series of disconcerting noises as servant bells ring in empty rooms and inexplicable banging sounds come from upstairs. It’s not long before the residents begin to question whether a malevolent presence is at work.
One of Abrahamson’s best skills as a director is the amount of nuance and emotion he’s able to get out of his actors. In The Little Stranger, Abrahamson’s character work pays off with a host of superb performances. Gleeson puts in a hypnotic, lingering turn as the restrained yet dangerously obsessed Faraday, and Poulter is empathetic as the crippled heir of the estate. Rampling’s talent is somewhat underutilised in her matriarchal role but Wilson is the real standout with a phenomenally layered and vulnerable performance.
While some horror fans may be disappointed by The Little Stranger’s lack of genuine scares, it does manage to build a real bubbling sense of dread through adroit cinematography and ominous sound design. The film deserves praise for prioritising an unsettling mood and ambiguity over cheap jump scares. Despite all this, there’s no denying that the film does drag at points, because of its consistently dour tone and lack of arresting visuals. The ending provides a pleasingly enigmatic twist, but still leaves one feeling slightly cold and lacks a real emotional gut punch. After the credits roll it’s Ruth Wilson’s captivating performance that will resonate above all else.
In the way of special features, the DVD underwhelms. It includes the theatrical trailer and teaser as well as a disappointingly brief behind the scenes featurette which is too short to go into any real depth. Lastly, there’s an audio commentary with Lenny Abrahamson. This is interesting enough but would have been more engaging if some of the cast members had been involved as their performances fuel the most memorable parts of the film.
THE LITTLE STRANGER / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: LENNY ABRAHAMSON / SCREENWRITER: LUCINDA COXON / STARRING: DOMHNALL GLEESON, RUTH WILSON, WILL POULTER, CHARLOTTE RAMPLING / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW