Holding onto juvenile obsessions as we get older and begin to comprehend the gray areas within such sources of adulation can be a tricky and perhaps even dangerous enterprise. Sooner or later, we’re bound to be disappointed at someone or something we once thought was pure, inspiring and overwhelmingly grand. When we eventually figure out how that veneer of perfection was artificially brought to life in the first place, is it best to bury your past—kill it if you have to—or double down by pretending that every emotion connected to it is as unstained by reality as it was in youth?
For restrained English countryside doctor Faraday (Domnhall Gleeson), his childhood obsession is a Downton Abbey-on-crack mansion that represented all of the class, grace and dignity he couldn’t enjoy as a child of the working class. In The Little Stranger, a wistful period drama melded with an original take on the haunted house flick, it’s 1919 and Farady visits the mansion after his mother, who was a maid there, is invited to a grand old party full of colorful ribbons and little girls wearing Seinfeld-like puffy shirts. In awe, he sneaks in as if hypnotized by its power and soaks in the fantasy of escape from his meager living and his strict parents, if only for a moment, until he’s pulled back into his grim reality.
Throughout the following decades, Faraday works hard to become a respected doctor, at least establishing himself as something above a common peasant. Meanwhile, the mansion dips in the opposite direction. Through various tragedies, the death of a child, the loss of money and the PTSD of patriarch Roderick (Will Poulter), the mansion becomes a hollow, lifeless, decrepit shell of its former self, occupied only by Roderick, his introverted sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson), his melancholic mother (Charlotte Rampling) and a single, exhausted maid (Liv Hill). By the time Faraday returns to the mansion to heal some of Roderick’s war injuries, it’s as if the house died years ago, still in the process of decomposition.
Yet none of that matters to Faraday; the rush of upper class respect he felt in 1919 returns and he begins to concoct, intentionally or unintentionally, ways of sticking around, to finally become an official part of the mansion. First, he tries to psychoanalyze Roderick, who reveals his deepest inner fears about the place. You see, there are rumors about a “presence” in the house, and it no longer wants the family there. The family, barely able to breathe under the heavy pain and disappointment that the house represents, is more than willing to comply and find any way out.
Faraday, however, not only wants to board this sinking ship, but is under the illusion that it can be righted under his influence. This leads to either a wholly ill-advised attempt at a romance with the broken Caroline, some angry ghosts or years of depression bubbling up to the surface—depending on how the audience might interpret it. As The Little Stranger careens toward its inevitable conclusion, we wonder who the antagonist really is: the presence, the house or Faraday himself?
Based on Sarah Waters’ novel, adapted by Lucinda Coxon and directed by Lenny Abrahamson (whose Room was one of the best films of 2015), The Little Stranger’s marketing was as scant as it was atonal, with trailers pushing it as a generic haunted house movie. To be fair, it must have been impossible to pinpoint a target audience for it. Fans of period dramas might be turned off by the light horror elements, while horror hounds would more than likely be bored stiff. Yet that’s what makes it such an exhilarating experience, blending two different genres in order to fully form a parable about the dangers of youthful obsession.
If helmed with a less delicate balance between these two tonal approaches, this experiment could have crumbled under its own weight, but Abrahamson can transition seamlessly between static James Ivory-type long shots of the soothing English countryside, easing the audience into a sense of comfort that comes with the high-class beauty of the period drama, and uncomfortable close-ups of faces, weaning in and out of focus, daring us to confront the neuroses of the characters head on. Underneath the veneer of uber-polite socializing is a vast inner turmoil. The way he handles the breathtaking final shot of the film, one that provides some closure to the supernatural mystery without indulging in a cheap Shyamalan-esque twist, beautifully connects the different sides of the narrative together, as it leaves a haunting trace in our minds while we leave the theater.
The real star here is the production design by Simon Elliott. As dilapidated as many films try to depict old haunted mansions, the buildings always hold a sense of awe and power. The faded and ripped wallpapers and the dusty, empty hallways in this mansion represent a burial casket with remnants of the once exuberant life still left in it. With great original horror like Get Out, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, mother! and Hereditary attempting to redefine the horror genre over the past couple years, we can count The Little Stranger as yet another welcome, wonderful addition to this new breed.
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Writer: Lucinda Coxon
Starring: Domnhall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill
Release Date: August 31, 2018