The Little Stranger (2018)
The film adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel “The Little Stranger” had some bad public reviews, and, therefore, I was curious to see it. In the story, Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) reacquaints himself with one stately house (Hundreds Hall) he used to admire in his childhood. This is the house belonging to the Ayres family, who now find themselves in a pitiful financial and societal position. Dr Faraday tries to help the son of the family Roderick (Will Poulter) with his health issues, and gets close to the daughter of Mrs Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) – Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson). However, with his blinding attachment to the house, Dr Faraday does not even guess the horrors which the house apparently holds. The film is not bad. It is stylishly presented and has some intriguing character presentation. However, it is also problematic in a way it tries too awkwardly to tie together a period drama, with one central maladjusted character, and supernatural horror.
I have not read the novel of Sarah Waters, and, therefore, will base my observations on the plot solely as it is presented in the film. Its beginning is strong. The film takes its time with every fragment of the story and each scene, but it is still all intriguing enough. There is this atmosphere of something unsettling going in the background, signalling a disaster to come, and Lenny Abrahamson (“Room” (2015)), the director, makes the picture almost too British with very meaningful silences in dialogues and the atmosphere of the cold unwelcome, focusing on class distinctions. Hundreds Hall is like another character in the film, and when Mrs Ayers (Rampling) says in the story that “this house works on people”, the film is like the beginning of something profound and subtly terrifying.
“The Little Stranger” boasts a strong cast. There is Charlotte Rampling (Mrs Ayres), playing a woman of the house with the dignity and grace, and both Wilson (Caroline) and Roderick (Poulter) seem to outdo themselves. The real revelation comes with Dr Faraday and Domhnall Gleeson’s portrayal. This is a nuanced performance, and it is both interesting and intriguing to follow his character around as that character reminisces and walks down a deceptively comfortable memory lane. Young Faraday was once attached to Hundreds Hall, which has always been out of bounds for him (class differences, one reason), and now, grown-up Dr Faraday seemingly takes some pleasure reacquainting himself with the house and taking care of its inhabitants. Being a doctor, he is a sympathetic character, often in charge of the care of others. However, as Dr Faraday’s entanglement with the affairs of the Ayres family deepens, we may also wonder if Dr Faraday does not have his own, more selfish or even sinister reasons for getting too close to the remaining members of the family.
However, it is not long before the film becomes unconvincing and few ideas work. Those who thought that the story would be more connected to Dr Faraday as a character might be a little disappointed, because the plot bounces on and off that character, and does not draw straight lines. There is a feeling that there are at least two different stories out there, and if, for one hour, we follow Dr Faraday, and to a lesser extent – Caroline and Roderick, the second half is something straight out of a film by James Wan (“Insidious” (2010)). All nuance and subtlety, including a period drama feel and the focus on the intriguing character, are seemingly completely forgotten as the film tries to combine the uncombinable.
If the director has to offer a lengthy and detailed explanation on what the film is all about and what it all means by the end of the film (see the explanations here), it is a sign that the film is already not good. There is a line between ambiguous-interesting and ambiguous-I-cannot-care-less, and, most of the time it seems that “The Little Stranger” falls into the latter category, despite its good intentions. The ending can be interpreted differently, but because this lengthy film has already sufficiently tried the patience of its audience, it is unclear whether they will be as understanding to this ambiguousness or even be thrilled by the film’s spooky, already-seen-it-all-before ending sequences.
“The Little Stranger”’s understated nature has its own peculiar charm, and the great characterisation of Dr Faraday, as well as the beautiful, stylish presentation of the story make the film very watchable. However, unfortunately, the film also has some evident lack of both a direction and a clear premise. The film feels unnecessarily long, and it is as though there are two or more stories to tell in there somewhere, with the film having no clue which one to choose and emphasise. The result is that its two polar-opposite “themes”: a slow period drama with much characterisation and not-so-subtle ghost horror, do not quite fit well together to lead to a satisfactory ending. 6/10