|UK Release Date||21st September 2018|
|Starring||Ruth Wilson, Domhnal Gleeson|
|Reviewed||7th October 2018|
When is a horror not a horror? Better question, why do studios insist on marketing movies by pointing audiences in one direction when the movie very definitely doesn’t go that way? I’ve no idea but having seen Lenny Abrahamson’s latest, I can tell you that the studio is doing the filmmaker and the audience no favours here.
The Little Stranger is a horror. Of a sort. But definitely not the one that was trailed. And it is all the better for it. There are no cheap jump scares here, no CGI nasties and, despite the trailer, no shadowy forms appearing in windows for people to catch glimpses of. What it is, is a very careful, claustrophobic and subtle view on obsession and class.
We open with Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) returning to a house that he has not visited since he was a child. Brought up very much on the other side of the tracks from the old money owners, that visit thirty years ago has left an indelible impression on the good doctor. When he returns, to treat an ill maid, he mentions almost in passing to the matriarch of the house Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) that his mother was a maid there too. Later in the movie he brings up in conversation with Mrs. Ayres’ daughter, Caroline (Ruth Wilson), that his mother would probably still be alive to this day if she hadn’t worked herself into the ground to give him an education. The two comments are a long way apart, both in running time and in terms of the Doctor’s relationship with the house and its inhabitants but they perfectly bookend his feelings for both. It’s this level of subtlety that marks the movie out as better than its rote horror trailer.
There is something strange going on at the house though and its state of decay is in stark contrast to the happy day that endures so stubbornly in Dr. Faraday’s memory. The family, like the house, has not aged well. The daughter who caught Faraday trespassing within the walls of the mansion on that day died soon after and the son, Roderick (Will Poulter), is terribly damaged both physically and emotionally by the war. It is these injuries that lead the doctor back to the house, ostensibly to treat them but his motives are less than clear as he continues to obsess over the house, his social standing and Caroline. The only other residents of the house by this time are the maid, Betty (Liv Hill) and Caroline’s enthusiastic Labrador.
The real horrors contained in Faraday’s life are far more pernicious than mere spectres though. They are also more refined and complex. As a doctor he has now attained a level of social standing that eluded his family previously but he is trapped in his guilt that his mother pretty much killed herself getting him through school. At the same time, his professional position now affords him access to a house that he was previously excluded from and he uses this to ingratiate himself with the family. This though cannot make up for the fundamental fact that he is out of his element. Invited to dinner with friends of the family, he is painfully outside the social circle and only really engages when he is called on in a professional capacity.
Later, as Faraday’s relationship with Caroline has formed more, he invites her to a dance with his friends (or at any rate, his colleagues, he doesn’t appear to have any friends that are outside his professional circle). It starts well but when Caroline meets an old friend from the war and dances with her, Faraday sits quietly seething on the sidelines, apparently trapped by his inability to bring the relationship he clearly wants to a head. It’s important to emphasise the ‘quietly’ in that statement though. Gleeson’s performance is mostly repressed beneath the surface, completely in tune with the tone and feeling of the movie. There are short bursts of energy but on the whole, the viewer is left with the impression that emotions are capped off, despite the generations or feelings beneath.
Ruth Wilson is as excellent as we’ve come to expect since her barnstorming turn as the psychopath Alice in Luther. She perfectly embodies the middle-aged spinster, recalled home to the family estate to run affairs. Every part of her personality, her clothing, even her walk exudes the kind of grinding inevitability of decaying wealth. Caroline is a person who gets on with it, who deals with things without complaint and who never really expects to be able to escape the house, even though it may be the only thing she wants.
As for Abrahamson, he directs with a similar cloying camerawork that he did with the impressive Room. The creaking dereliction of the old house seems synonymous with the inhabitants and the director underplays everything to a tee. When he does make a move (for example the repeated cracking sound from young Faraday breaking off an acorn decoration from a picture frame), it’s like a rifle shot across the bows. And all the time he is layering on the subtle horrors. War, class, time, decay, obsession, loneliness, guilt, isolation, all gradually pile up on the characters until something must break. There are supernatural elements, or at least elements that can’t be explained once the story has runs its course but there isn’t the same emphasis on them that we have come to expect in a traditional horror story. Once you piece together what you think has happened, there will still be questions, but this isn’t a movie that needs a neat explanation for everything.
The Little Stranger will probably divide people along the lines of those looking for an out and out ghost story and those who are comfortable with a drama that happens to be haunted. The performances are great and the careful way Abrahamson builds the horror is impressive. This is a movie about characters in this spiritual plane, not another one. It’s a movie that delights in laying down proper characterisation and spending time with the unfortunate inhabitants of Hundreds Hall. This isn’t a movie that will have you cowering behind your seat, but there’s a new Halloween coming out if that’s what you’re after. If you want something altogether quieter and horrific in its own way, this movie will fit the bill nicely.