THE LITTLE STRANGER is an atmospheric, haunting, realistic ghost story that has surprising relevance to the issues of modern day life despite being a period film. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, the director of Frank and Room, the first being a film about art and mental illness starring Michael Fassbender that I thought was fantastic and the second a critical favorite nominated for the Academy Award and that Brie Larson won a Best Actress nod for, it is fascinating, genuinely creepy, and a beautiful portrait of class resentment and ghostly revenge in post World War 2 Britain.
The film is based on the Gothic novel of the same name written by Sarah Waters that was short listed for the Booker Prize. The plot concerns a young and caring doctor who comes from the lower classes and has, through his mother’s devotion and hard work, managed to carve out a respectable career and reputation in the village of his birth. He becomes entangled in the lives and declining fortunes of the Ayres family, landed gentry of the village he grew up in and admired from afar, who now live a sad and isolated existence in the ruined Hundreds Hall.
Domhnall Geeson is excellent as the straight laced and emotionally restrained Doctor Faraday. You can feel the pressure of his need to be accepted and loved fighting with his desires to adhere to the rules of his almost feudal society that cause inner turmoil and fiery anger below a stoic surface. Ruth Wilson beautifully defines the role of the intelligent and somewhat open minded female child of a family who will never value her as a strong minded woman or understand who she really is. Her face and body show the depression and cynicism she feels until she slowly comes back to life as the doctor visits the Hall and her family and begins to expose her to life in the outside world again. They show why so many men “set their cap” for her, even though the family no longer has a fortune to make her the heiress. The graceful Charlotte Rampling plays the mother of the clan who is lost to the memories of the past and regret for what has changed and what might have been. Will Poulter shines as the heir of the family who has been damaged by his injuries in the Great War both physically and mentally, but truly loves his sister and family.
The film’s exploration of class snobbery and resentment is outstanding. While the classism of 1948 is different from today, the strictures on the poor and those without a “name” have great resonance on today’s celebrity driven society. While some things seem to have changed in our world, have they really? As Faraday becomes more of a part of the Ayres lives, he feels more like he deserves to be considered an equal and gets cut down repeatedly both by the family and other members of the village. His service to the family never seem to make him good enough to be considered more than a friend. He is only good enough to provide help for the family and be asked to dinner when they have a need to “make up numbers” that is, they have to have another man there to have a proper dinner service. Faraday is their servant to be used when it is convenient for them, but he also feels an entitlement to possess even the faded glory of the family through his service.
Abrahamson has given the story and character development the time it needs to breathe and grow in an organic manner. The film has many resonances to classic Gothic literature like the work of Shirley Jackson in The Haunting of Hill House, the angry spirit of the House that torments anyone who lives there and the obsessed protagonist, We Have Always Lived In The Castle, the strange child who has malevolent intent, and even The Lottery with its themes of ritual and punishment of the Other. The set design of the present day lonely and unkempt Hundreds Hall is thrown into even sharper relief by the magnificence of the House in the flashbacks from Faraday’s mind. The long and leisurely pans of deserted and dusty rooms and the severe close ups of Farraday are very effective and remind me of the gradually building atmosphere and terror of Session 9, which THE LITTLE STRANGER has similarities to as well. Much like The Haunting of Hill House, Hundreds Hall is a character in the story itself. A gorgeous and cold character that may hold secrets.
I believe in spoiler free reviews, even though I also don’t think that spoilers can really ruin a great film, so I won’t go into the plot and events of the film much more than that. The film does cause you to ponder who is the ghost, what or who is the real evil, the dangers of entitlement, and what truly is the nature of a poltergeist. Is a poltergeist a manifestation of an angry and disturbed mind or the trapped energy of an unhappy former occupant of Hundreds Hall who used to be the beloved and spoiled member of the family? Is it the Hall itself or a source much closer to the characters themselves? The penultimate shot of the film filled me with dread and creeped out for a few hours afterwards. The last shot made me feel a great sadness for the casual cruelties of humanity and how we hurt each other over trivial differences. THE LITTLE STRANGER is a film that will nestle in your brain and ask you to think of things that will make you frightened on a level that is primal and disturbing. It will bite into your heart and make you feel guilty for judging others based on the image they present. Who are the ghosts indeed. This is a film that has great rewards for the viewer who loves a film with no easy answers.
THE LITTLE STRANGER arrives in theaters August 31st
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