The Little Stranger is Lenny Abrahamson’s unsettling follow-up to Room, a harrowing tale of abduction and confinement. On the surface, the two films may seem worlds apart. But in each of them Abrahamson creates an atmosphere of psychological co-dependence, demonstrating that an immense 18th century mansion can be every bit as emotionally claustrophobic as a soundproof backyard shed.
The Little Stranger takes place at Hundreds Hall, a vast sprawling estate that once represented the epitome of wealth. Transported back to post World War II Warwickshire, we find a household clinging desperately to a fading aristocratic society that once was.
Dr. Faraday (Domnhall Gleeson) has been called to the estate to attend to the maid. As Faraday approaches, we see the grand exterior of this stately British home, but its squeaky iron gates betray its current state of disrepair. Once inside, Faraday sees the enormous house is dark, empty, in a decrepit condition. As he pauses to look up at a staircase that no doubt leads to equally murky spaces, a tangible sense of loneliness creeps in and the abandoned feeling creates a perfect ghostly mansion setting. It’s a shot that Abrahamson will returns to later on in the film with a younger Faraday looking up from the bottom of the staircase to mysteries above.
Betty is the young maid whose condition the doctor has come to examine. She’s the last maid left of a dwindling staff. Something in the house is spooking her, and she hopes Dr. Faraday will diagnose her with an illness so she can take her leave. Instead, he tells her she’ll be fine in the morning and so she remains.
Faraday, it turns out is no stranger to this house, his own mother was once a maid there, and thus his attraction and attachment to the house is revealed. As a young boy, Faraday, as the maid’s son longed to be a part of its family. Instead, he was excluded from it, watching the fêtes and soirées from the fringes. His yearning to be a part of this home is so compelling that he breaks off a piece of molding as a fragmented keepsake.
As an adult, Faraday’s obsession and attraction to the house grows ever stronger as he gets close to its residents, particularly Caroline (Ruth Wilson), the family’s unmarried daughter.
The Little Stranger haunts us in the way the characters themselves are haunted, by bonding us with a pervasive sense of loss. Will Poulter plays Roderick, the master of the house, severely injured from serving in the war. His face is scarred from a fire and he suffers from PTSD. Charlotte Rampling is excellent as the mistress of the house, haunted by the death of her young daughter, Susan, who died from diphtheria. Rampling’s character is a dignified reminder of the aristocratic world in which she once reigned, but now that the house around her has decayed and deteriorated, she and the mansion are a keen metaphor of the society ravaged by the tides of history and existing now as a shell of their former glory. Faraday himself has a pallid presence that sometimes makes him seem as much specter as doctor.
For a ghost story, it’s notable that The Little Stranger is not is a film filled with eerie music and jump scares that we have grown accustomed to when we think of the word horror or thriller. While door slams and strange noises are woven through the soundscape, the element of horror here is kept to a subtle level of creepy. The sound design of this film is masterful and haunting and at times downright frightening. It’s a slow burn that insidiously gets under our skin, as each moment is filled with mounting fear, each anxiety-ridden incident strains our imagination.
Adapted from the Sarah Waters sensational novel of the same name, Lucinda Coxon adapted the screenplay in a lowkey pitch of chilling ambiance. allowing for Abrahamson to explore the spaces, both physical and psychological, where the characters dwell. Production designer Simon Elliott paints with mossy green tones, a lending a faded verdigris patina to the dusty, neglected estate. Everything about Hundreds Hall and its residents are weathered, as if beaten down abused by misfortune. Complimenting that impression are Steven Noble’s costume designs that put Caroline in shapeless skirts and blouses with natty cardigan, nothing reflective of what she wishes she was, a lady of high society. Instead she too is neglected and forgotten.
Class structure in the UK was collapsing rapidly in the 1940s and that subtext is ever present. But what’s so wonderfully sinister about this film is the way nothing is spelled out explicitly. It is up to us to conjecture. Is Hundred Halls haunted? Or is it all a product of psychosomatic manifestation? Or is it both? Does the ghost of young Susan truly haunt these halls? Early on, Betty tells Faraday she’s afraid of the house. Roderick too says, “There is a thing in this house that hates us.” Another scene has Faraday in the pub talking about the conscious and subconscious with another doctor and how the subconscious can break away to become a force in itself.
Dickensian meets Jamesian when Faraday entwines more closely to Ayres family, and the mysteries accelerate as the Turn of the Screw tightens. The inhabitants of Hundreds Hall are fraught with regret and longings as the new norms society evolves around them, and the tensions of relentless change have fractured them in one way or another. Instead, it looks at the “horror” of a class structure breaking around people. Clement Attlee’s ushering in of the NHS means Faraday will probably lose his patients, the introduction of the welfare state and a grim, grey Britain under the new Labour government set in the perfect setting of Hundreds Hall.
The Little Stranger doesn’t have any surprise twist or eureka revelation but there’s a satisfying catharsis to be found when subconscious suspicions are confirmed. Just as Sarah Waters left questions unanswered in the novel, Abrahamson lets us decide whether a ghost haunts the mansion, and you’ll see how the horrors linger even longer because we’re left hanging. The final image is a beautifully captivating portrait of destiny’s despair, but boy does it haunt you. By reminding us that elaborately constructed facades are rarely what they seem, The Little Stranger a perfect Gothic thriller, a meditation on Britain class friction, epitomized by grand mansions and grandiose attitudes too lofty to sustain — and spirits too pernicious to ever go away.