'The Little Stranger': Film Review

A film worth ghosting.

This haunted-house melodrama from 'Room' director Lenny Abrahamson is more stolid than it is scary.

As far back as he can remember, Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) has wanted to be an aristocrat. In 1919, when this devoted country physician was a commonplace village boy, he became smitten with the mansion known as Hundreds Hall, home to the upper-crust Ayers family. Every child, at some point or other, desperately wants something they don't have. Now, in the years just after WWII, the adult Faraday has a chance to realize his youthful ambitions when the remaining Ayers clan, well on the decline, enlist his services at their run-down estate, which has a metaphorical, and perhaps a literal, spectral pull on the inhabitants.

Whether an actual wraith is in attendance is never fully clear. Even less evident are the reasons director Lenny Abrahamson decided to take on this nebulous ghost story, adapted from a 2009 novel by British novelist Sarah Waters, as the follow-up to his Academy Award-winning feature Room (2015).

You can see a sketchy affinity: Both movies are concerned with haunted spaces, the backyard shed imprisoning a mother and son in Room expanded here into a full-on gothic manor out of Jane Eyre or Rebecca. And Abrahamson has certainly put the right kinds of performers within these decaying walls, from Will Poulter as the battle-scarred, shell-shocked man of the house to Charlotte Rampling as the forbidding matriarch, masking the pain she feels over the death, years before, of her young daughter with the steely resolve that is this great actress' specialty. The majority of The Little Stranger, however, isn't concerned with supernatural goings-on as much as it is Dr. Faraday's subtle attempts to insinuate himself into the everyday existence, such as it is, of the Ayers clan.

A man of science through and through, Faraday continually denies unearthly explanations, even after a young visitor to the mansion is seemingly mauled by a poltergeist and insanity or suicidal tendencies infect the Ayers family members like demonic poison. There's enough about the good doctor that's already not of this world, with his rigid posture, monstrously contemptuous stare, and a stiff-upper-lip that has a stiff-upper-lip all its own in the form of a mustache trimmed to too-eerie perfection. From his humble origins, Faraday has remade himself into a grotesque parody of a blue-blood, his primary target, beside the cursed homestead, being the family's only remaining daughter, Caroline (Ruth Wilson), to whom he romances and eventually proposes, with expectedly tragic results.

Gleeson plays the role with the kind of full-bore commitment (every supercilious gesture precise and intelligently thought through) that makes you wish the movie better complemented his efforts. Despite the dusty-cum-misty ambience courtesy cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland and some staccato-rhythmed editing by Nathan Nugent that slightly ups the creep factor, it's clear that Abrahamson has little interest in the genre trappings of The Little Stranger. He'd rather race through the spine-chilling moments — or throw a haughty sneer in their direction — so that he can get to the metaphor at the story's heart, namely that the "ghost" is class resentment that has been allowed to fester in a man who, despite his hippocratic oath, long ago ceded the health of humanity to his own upward mobility.

If that makes it sound like meaning constantly takes precedence over method here, it'd be a spot-on diagnosis. And like flesh without a skeleton to support it, the film ultimately collapses in a hollowed-out heap.

Production Companies: Focus, Pathé, Film4, Ingenious Media, Irish Film Board (Bord Scannán na hÉireann), Canal+, Cine+, Potboiler Production, Element Pictures
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Liv Hill, Charlotte Rampling
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Screenplay: Lucinda Coxon
Based on the novel by: Sarah Waters
Executive Producers: Cameron McCracken, Daniel Battsek, Andrew Lowe, Celine Haddad, Tim O’Shea
Producers: Gail Egan, Andrea Calderwood, Ed Guiney
Cinematographer: Ole Bratt Birkeland
Editor: Nathan Nugent
Music: Stephen Rennicks
Production Designer: Simon Elliott
Costume Designer: Steven Noble
Casting Director: Nina Gold
Hair & Makeup Designer: Sian Grigg

111 minutes