Sarah Waters’ chiller is an interesting change of pace for Lenny Abrahamson, coming off the deeply moving Room and the uproarious Frank. However, his gripping 2012 drama What Richard Did proved he’s more than capable of mining the icy dark dysfunction and tragedy at the heart of this 1948-set gothic, which is cannily adapted by Lucinda Coxon.
Domhnall Gleeson plays Faraday, a gifted, upright and uptight young doctor who’s back in the rural town where he grew up. When he attends to a frightened young maid at Hundreds Hall, we see that Faraday has always been fascinated by the stately home and its residents, the Ayres family. He’s particularly drawn to Caroline (Ruth Wilson), whose brother Roderick (Will Poulter) still suffers from physical and psychological injuries sustained during the war. The family is destitute and the house is falling apart, but is there more than idle gossip to the spooky stories about the old place?
It’s the full Gothic set menu: the crumbling mansion, the young man of science, the lonely young woman, the haunted war hero, the eccentric old woman (Charlotte Rampling, having a lot of fun) and talk of some kind of curse…but this film very rarely goes in for things going bump in the night. The atmosphere that Abrahamson creates is one of discomfort rather than fear. The longer we spend with these characters, the more we observe and understand their unsettling patterns of behaviour, and the urge to escape that tense, airless world is every bit as potent as the chills prompted by the shots of empty night-time corridors.
Gleeson is superb as a man so buttoned up that you can see the distress caused by the repressed desires locked up under his collar, and Poulter gives the film some much needed raw emotion as the tortured Roderick. However, it’s Wilson who quietly walks away with the film as Caroline, trapped in a vast airless coffin and wondering if she still has a chance to escape.
It’s an intricately constructed and deliberately chilly look at a decaying world, with privilege rotting away in the face of change and characters who either crave its return or long to burn it all down. To say any more would be to ruin its surprises, but while The Little Stranger may divide audiences, it’s very sharp indeed.