The Little Stranger: It seems little more than the blink of an eye since director Lenny Abrahamson was the man of the moment.  His beautifully constructed Room was the talk of the festival circuit and went on to be showered with award nominations and a gong or two as well. All that attention was followed by the inevitable question.

The Little Stranger review

The Little Stranger review by Freda Cooper.

What Lenny did next was to go back to a project he’d been working on before Room came along, transferring Sarah Waters’ Booker shortlisted The Little Stranger to the big screen.  A safe choice it would appear, adapting yet another book, but all is not what it seems, both in terms of the story and the adaptation.  Just a few years after the end of World War II, country GP Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is a pillar of the community, having set up in practice in his old home town.  He’s called out to the fading mansion Hundreds Hall, the dilapidated ancestral home of the Ayres family and memories of his childhood and his mother working there as a maid come flooding back.  There’s a strong sense of the house being haunted, although nobody can say exactly why and, as Faraday becomes more involved with the family, he gets closer to finding out what’s really happening.

It’s a film full of questions, but with fewer actual answers.  As Abrahamson explains in our exclusive interview with him, Waters preferred to describe the story as “subtle”, but he veers towards “ambiguous”.  Is there really an actual ghost in the house?  Certainly, there’s something very strange going on, but perhaps the Ayres family – mother (Charlotte Rampling), daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and war veteran son Roderick (an almost unrecognisable Will Poulter) are haunted by something else.  Their past.  The once opulent Hundreds Hall is shabby, unkempt and slowly falling down around their ears.  Roderick is acutely aware that it’s happening and that there’s nothing he can do to stop it.

The overall sense of decay spills over into one of the film’s main themes, that of class.  Faraday cannot let go of his memories of his visits to the house as a child.  And, as he says at the opening, he never imagined that the doors of a place like Hundreds Hall would be open to somebody like him.  It produces an inverted snobbery in him, which might be the reason for his fascination with Caroline in particular, and the rest of the family.  Or it might not.

Whatever, it’s a dark tale, and one that burns slowly.  For the first half, it’s not especially clear where it’s headed, but there’s enough interest in the characters and the gothic atmosphere to hold on to the audience.  After Goodbye Christopher Robin, Domhnall Gleeson is carving out a niche in playing restrained, brittle men, and he’s even better here.  Ruth Wilson is as excellent as ever as the emotionally and physically trapped Caroline, as is Charlotte Rampling’s mother, desperately trying to hold on to her former glory days, while Poulter rages against the world and is clearly in terrible pain from his war wounds.  The penny does, eventually, drop, although when is actually down to the individual.  But drop it does and then things start to fall into place.  Or at least they seem to.

Ole Bratt Birkeland’s cinematography, the smoky colour palette and the sense of claustrophobia, despite the vastness of the house, all work together effectively.  But there are elements of the plot which simply don’t hang together and all that repressed emotion keeps the audience at arm’s length.  The suspenseful gothic atmosphere simply isn’t enough, and the sting in the tail the film needs is noticeable by its absence.  With so many qualities, The Little Stranger is within a whisker of being great, but never quite makes it.

The Little Stranger review by Freda Cooper.

The Little Stranger is released in the UK on Friday, 21 September 2018.