By Rhys Parry-George
In recent years, the ghost story has taken the horror film genre by storm, with each passing year producing the same formula under a different guise. From this recent craze we have seen bleak and bland horror outings such as James Watkins’ The Woman In Black (2012), or the bloated monstrosity that is James Wan’s The Conjuring franchise (2013 -). However, this sudden fascination with the paranormal has also lead to the creation of modern masterpieces such as Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories (2017), a film that actually dared to change the formula so predictably used by Wan for his cinematic universe.
Sadly however, I cannot extend the same praise to Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger, based on the critically acclaimed novel by British author Sarah Waters.
Set against the social and political upheaval of 1948, the film centres itself upon the character of Faraday (played by Domhnall Gleeson), a cynical private physician who has always had a long withstanding obsession with Hundreds Hall, an 18th century mansion based in the forest surrounding the town. After being called there one day to examine a terrified young maid, Faraday soon integrates himself into the household, befriending the Ayers family.
Among the sombre kin we have such quirky characters as Roderick, a deformed war veteran (played by Will Poulter) and his elder sister Caroline (played by Ruth Wilson). After growing close to each member of the dying family, Faraday soon finds himself being pulled into the strange world of Hundreds Hall, where fires are set without reason and where strange markings line the walls. Soon the word ‘ghost’ is thrown around by the principal characters, leading to violence and tragedy as each member of the Ayers family succumbs to the evil entity haunting their ancestral home.
In terms of direction and visual style, the film is a gothic paradise. From the cobble stones of the village, to the decaying giant that is Hundreds Hall. From the moment Faraday steps into the titular mansion, you get a sense that something is wrong with the place. The walls are ornate and yet peeling, the portraits lining the exterior are beautiful masterpieces turned into skeletal nightmares by age and ignorance. The film alone should be credited for wonderfully capturing the dark setting of the book, and setting the atmosphere for what could have been a perfect ghost story.
The supporting cast also do a fantastic job with the rich roles they have been given to perform. Ruth Wilson once again stuns in her performance of Caroline, which is sincere and yet also bawdy and audacious. Will Poulter also demonstrates his acting chops in his role of Roderick, which leaves him conveying a strong emotional performance through a layer of synthetic burn scars. His lop-sided physicality also alludes to the horrors his character has suffered at the mercy of the second world war, underlining that not all monsters are secluded to the innards of the haunted house. Charlotte Rampling also breezes through her small role as the matriarch of the family, again presenting why she is one of the finest actors working in the industry today.
The large cast of even smaller characters all do their jobs well, creating likable and real human beings who are luckily separated from the terrors of the main supernatural threat. But I am sad to say that the weakest performance in this film comes from Gleeson himself. In the book, Faraday is a cynical and patronising character, your unlikability for him is what drives the novel almost to the point of emotional breakdown, making you feel trapped in an never ending cycle of unexplained events being brushed off by the main character. Yet for some reason Gleeson takes this and morphs it into a performance that is both monotone and boring. Not only is his Faraday unphased by the influences of the ghost, but also by life and existence in general. It’s a shame, especially when concerning how strong an actor Gleeson can be when given the proper material.
The film also seems to run through its events, hitting all the infamous beats in the novel in what feels like minutes. Again this may not have been so bad if Gleeson’s performance was not the only thing anchoring the paranormal and the normal together. Even though its pacing may be fast from the perspective of someone who has encountered the original novel, I also believe that its pacing could be dubbed ‘slow’ by the average horror movie fan. This is not in any way similar to jump-scare reliant fares such as The Nun (2018, dir. Corin Hardy). For the horror of this film stems from the terrible atrocities inflicted upon innocent people who do not deserve them, instead of stemming from a chorus of faceless nuns running down a dark corridor. However this may be to the film’s determent, as it does not promise the same big scares of other recent successful ghost movies.
Overall The Little Stranger is a small movie that boasts a phenomenal cast, eerie atmosphere and yet also very little substance or point. At best, it’s an average.
Faraday: [voice over] The first time I saw Hundreds Hall was July 1919. Nothing could have prepared me for the spell it cast. When I saw the house again thirty years later, I could hardly comprehend the change in the place.
Faraday: Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?
Roderick Ayres: You wouldn’t believe me.