Imagine, if you will, driving down a quiet country road, surrounded by greenery. As you round a corner, there is something looming ahead: a large, old house in a state of disrepair. There is something fascinating about this crumbling estate – it was once something grand and beautiful, but now shabby. You’re enchanted, mesmerized, and want to walk through its threshold to see what lies behind its doors. This is the estate at the center of director Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger, a film that seems to defy a genre label, spanning thriller, drama, romance, and supernatural. But the marketing, as minimal as it has been, makes The Little Stranger seem purely like a horror movie. Horror fans, or people looking for a horror movie, will be disappointed. Instead of ghosts, they’ll get melancholy, loneliness, desperation, and the need to hold onto the past.
The Little Stranger begins with Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) visiting the dilapidated Hundreds Hall to check on the Ayres family’s young maid, Betty (Liv Hill). After the visit, he becomes close with the family, particularly Caroline (Ruth Wilson), as he helps her injured war vet brother, Roderick (Will Poulter). As Faraday learns more about the family, seemingly supernatural events start taking place around the house, slowly tearing the family apart.
The film takes place soon after World War II, with themes of the decaying English aristocracy, the working class moving up in society, and nostalgia permeating throughout the near-two-hour runtime. The house takes on a life of its own, embodying these themes and becoming a living reminder of the family’s failures. It’s a lived-in tomb to both the memory of its once-great days and of Susan, the Ayres’ now deceased daughter. It creaks and moans, trying to get the attention of those that inhabit it. It’s sprawling and unruly, forcing the family to sell parts of it. The attention to detail in the home is phenomenal, with even threadbare and ripped couch upholstery depicting the manor’s state of disrepair.
Domnhall Gleeson as working-class doctor Faraday is cold and unyieldingly stiff. It’s initially off-putting as he grimaces his way through each scene, looking utterly disinterested in everything around him. However, through flashbacks to a fateful day in 1919, Faraday reveals he once visited Hundreds Hall and was enchanted by it. His obsessive nostalgia with the estate begins to consume even his steely exterior. His exterior is all about looks and appearing to be one of the upper class. His status is continually put into question as guests ask if anyone is ill and why a doctor would be in attendance. Gleeson’s performance is about obsessive nostalgia, as well as trying to appear as one of the in-crowd.
Ruth Wilson has the film’s strongest performance as Caroline Ayres, the daughter who has returned home to care for her ailing brother. She is lonely, confused, and desperate to leave Hundreds Hall. Wilson plays the introverted Caroline with such pain; pain for her family, pain for herself, and pain for what has come to pass. She looks to Faraday to help somehow fix that pain, though her relationship with Faraday is an odd one. It seems to be built on desperation for both parties. It’s not a friendly relationship, but rather one built out of necessity.
Will Poulter and Charlotte Rampling also have standout performances, but utilized so little throughout the film. Poulter, decked out in elaborate prosthetics, is the explosive war vet who is trying to save the estate. Sadly, he vanishes from the film’s second half. Rampling plays the Ayres’ matriarch, Mrs. Ayres, who is obsessed with her dead daughter, Susan. The house is a tomb to her memory for Mrs. Ayers, a tomb that she will never leave.
Despite stellar set design and performances, the film’s tone is off-putting and jarring. It begins as a sad look at a crumbling old English family and how this is consuming their waking thoughts – it begins as a historical drama. However, it suddenly shifts into paranormal territory and seems like a different film. The “ghost” makes very few appearances and only towards the film’s end. It feels almost tacked onto the plot to make it more marketable to a wider audience.
The Little Stranger is not a horror movie. This is a movie about loneliness, trying to climb the social ladder and the consequences of obsession. This is a film that will grab you and not let go until the very last second. There’s something haunting and enchanting about the crumbling estate. It puts you in the shoes of Dr. Faraday, with Hundreds Hall casting the same spell on you as it did to him in 1919.