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‘The Little Stranger’ (review)

Produced by Gail Egan,
Andrea Calderwood, Ed Guiney

Written by Lucinda Coxon
Based on The Little Stranger
by Sarah Waters

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson,
Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling,
Liv Hill, Josh Dylan

A dilapidated country estate makes for a terrifically Gothic setting, but the things that haunt the fading Ayres family are more earthly than supernatural in this period film from Room director Lenny Abrahamson.

Despite the promising set-up, those looking for a ripping ghost yarn will walk away disappointed.

The trailer showed unexplained bell ringings, a mysterious fire, and characters muttering about the house being cursed.

The film itself offers little more in the way of ghostly happenings, which is frustrating, as all the elements are there for a truly haunting film.

There is, however, still a worthwhile story being told, as Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) returns to his native county to join the resident doctor after the end of WWII.

One of his first cases is at Hundreds Hall, the 18th-century home of the Ayres, where Faraday’s mother worked as a maid when he was a child. Faraday has always been keenly conscious of his working class origins and fascinated with Hundreds Hall as the epitome of upper class glory.

We continually return to a festive day 30 years prior when the locals were invited onto the grounds and young Faraday was permitted inside. His memory — and the house itself — is heavy with the memory of the eldest Aryes daughter, Susan, who died soon after. The spirit of the house, it seems, may have died with her.

Now Faraday finds the place in disrepair and the inhabitants in various stages of psychological distress: The young maid (Liv Hill) he’s called to attend to is terrified of the house. Roderick (Will Poulter) was severely burned in the war and is now a bitter alcoholic. Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who is described as a “clever girl,” has given up what might have been a promising career to take care of her brother. And then there’s the matriarch, Angela (Charlotte Rampling), who’s never gotten over Susan’s death.

Gradually, the Ayres come to rely more upon the doctor: He develops a treatment for Roderick’s badly burned leg and he and the lonely Caroline draw closer.

But Roderick has a “bad feeling” something terrible is going to happen and he’s quite right, beginning with a tragic incident involving the family dog.

The question of whether there is indeed a sinister presence in the house — or just an ex-soldier with PTSD and a grief-stricken family — is never really settled. Everything that happens has a perfectly plausible explanation.

The best ghost stories are usually psychological profiles as well and there’s a lot here to analyze, particularly Faraday. Is he truly in love with Caroline or is he just trying to take his rightful place at Hundreds Hall at long last?

One of the greatest horror films, 1963’s The Haunting, never even shows us any ghosts, although we see full well the terrors they inspire. So leaving the nature of this “haunting” so ambiguous isn’t necessarily a fault…. not until the film’s open-ended final shot.

The group of critics I saw this with hung around after the screening and debated the possible interpretations. None of us could agree on what that ending meant.

And then I went home and hit up Wikipedia and some threads about the novel, (which I haven’t read) for clarification. The ending seems entirely faithful to the book, although perhaps its context is clearer in the novel. Both are designed to keep fans guessing.

What is never clear in the film is the source of any sinister force at work: Is it just bad luck? Roddy’s alcohol-fueled madness? Caroline’s frustration at being trapped? The ghost of Susan? Or is Faraday unwittingly helping to doom the house he loves so much?

I’m being generous in my rating because I love a good Gothic setting and the cast was top-notch. But I was left wanting more of the ghost story the trailers promised.

I’d recommend the similarly Gorey-esque The Awakening from 2011 for those who are looking for both atmosphere and a good ghost story.

 

Rating: 3 out of 5

 

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