Ghosts don’t actually exist, but the ghosts that haunt The Little Stranger are as real as can ever be depicted in a work of fiction. Informed by the downfall of the class divide in England following World War II, the new film by Irish director Lenny Abrahamson is galvanized by the ghosts of a past and the hopes for an unattainable future by the film’s protagonist. Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) has worked hard to lift his family’s name from being servants into the medical field, but he wants more.
Back in the day, Faraday’s mother had been a maid among a large staff at Hundreds Hall, a grandiose Georgian manor owned by the Ayres family. As a child, he joined his mother and father there for a rare invitation to a party on the property’s lawn. He was not permitted to go beyond that lawn, however. Now, as a doctor, he is beckoned back to check on an infirm maid (Liv Hill), Betty, the only maid the Ayres family can now afford. She has fallen mysteriously ill. Faraday is greeted by the man of the house, Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter), a badly burned former Royal Air Force pilot. A quick checkup of Betty by Faraday reveals her as a bit of a nervous slacker in need of rest. Classic can’t find any good help in this day and age, notes the matriarch of the home (Charlotte Rampling). Roderick’s appearance and Betty’s nerves establishes a none too subtle air of unease at the house, but it doesn’t trump Faraday’s obsession with the home. When he offers a pioneering method of electrical stimulation to Roderick to ease his discomfort, Faraday becomes a regular at the manor during a series of treatments where he gets to know Roderick’s sister, Caroline (Ruth Wilson) with whom he begins a clumsy but well mannered flirtation.
During his routine visits to Hundreds Hall, Faraday feeds a desire instilled by his childhood visit, despite the building’s worn out stairs and banister his hand glides on with a blind sort of engrossment. The mansion has become a decrepit shadow of its glory from that summer day in 1919, when the young Faraday snuck into the foyer and snapped off a plaster acorn from an embellishment on the house’s interior. There’s dust everywhere, mirrors are mostly oxidized, reflecting the ruin before them. As the home creaks and surprises with distant sounds, Roderick expresses an oppressive sense of depression that implies maybe the house is haunted.
Abrahamson never goes out of his way to amp up any sense of dread, however. The film unfolds with a patience that is reflected in the score by Stephen Rennicks, which often features a subdued, low-pitched mournful melody carried by oboes. The director also works to continually remind the audience of the largeness of this place, often finding impressive high-angled establishing shots that kick off several scenes. It’s as if the house is looking down on its occupants. During a social gathering the Ayres invite Faraday to, the emptiness of the space above the small group of people feels as though its weighing them down. It speaks both to the grandness of the home and its ghostliness. It’s worth noting that the attention to detail can also be found in the film’s sound design: the echo of conversation below the high vaulted ceilings and the harsh, sharp bark of Caroline’s big gray dog.
There’s a patience to everything in the movie, from Rennicks’ score to steadily paced dramatic developments that will surely test those expecting a haunted house chiller of a movie, which this is not. An awareness of time and its gradual passage and what time does to wear things down is important to the film’s atmosphere. On that note, before you play the trailer below, I hope it’s clear that this movie is not just a spine-tingling fright film. The horror lies elsewhere — and there is at least a couple of true moments of horror — but the film depicted in the trailer is not the film that unspools over a nearly two-hour run time. If you want to believe what’s implied in the trailer, you will be sorely disappointed by this movie, as there are actions that are clearly apparent in the film that explain mysteries implied in the trailer. The film’s trailer has a misleading quality that recalls what this same distributor did with The American (The dark stillness of The American) — creating a movie that was never there to begin with. In an interview with Abrahamson, the director told us he had no control over the marketing of this film. You can read about that by jumping through the article’s headline below:
Director Lenny Abrahamson surprised The Little Stranger reviews are being held till day before release
The Little Stranger runs 111 minutes and is rated R. It opens in wide release everywhere on Friday, Aug. 31. Focus Features invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.