Little Stranger, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/05/18 09:45:11

"Not haunting."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Somewhere in the middle of "The Little Stranger", the filmmakers seem to decide or remember that it's going to be a ghost story and start having weird things happen. It hasn't been great at being anything else, but that still seems like the least interesting choice they could have made. It's a bland, generic haunting, and never seems to serve as the metaphor for a dying way of life that it should be, just a way to tidy up.

Things start with something seeming off, as Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is called to The Hundreds, a large, decaying manse in Warwickshire, to tend to maid Betty (Liv Hill), who is not actually ailing but figures a poor bill of health would be an excuse to leave the creepy place. It's not exactly a homecoming for Faraday - his mother left her job there before he was born and he only visited once, as a child - but he's always been drawn to the place. Now, only three member of the Ayres family remain: Roderick (Will Poulter), whose heroism during the war left the young man traumatized and disfigured; his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson), returned home to care for him; and their mother (Charlotte Rampling), who still seems to favor her first, lost child. Faraday soon becomes close to the siblings, treating Roderick's leg and being matched with Caroline when numbers at an event need evening out.

This all takes place in the late 1940s, a time when the United Kingdom is remaking itself after World War II, and though it is mostly happening off-screen, there are pointed comments about the methods - Faraday's colleague mentions the new National Health Service while Roderick mentions that the new inheritance taxes have strangled his family, forcing him to sell part of the estate to a developer who will create a whole neighborhood of single family homes on the property. The irony here is that Caroline seems to find this liberating - she is mentioned as having flourished in her wartime auxiliary service, and immediately empathizes with people having their own modest homes - while Faraday reacts with shock and horror. This is an attack on the way of life he has known and his aspirations, even if they are not realistically within his reach. The film is, then, a sort of love triangle between a man, a woman, and a house, as well as a snapshot of that moment in time.

Unfortunately, that idea of the passing aristocracy, embodied by the decaying house, the daughter who wants to let it go, and the village doctor who wants to grab hold, is kind of intriguing, but very little story coalesces around it. The structure is there, but only Faraday is truly pushing toward something, and that is undercut by the idea of the poltergeist. The return of the supernatural hunted at forward the beginning doesn't do much but push a few extraneous characters offstage, and never feels like it's a force for anything except a bit of chaos; if there's a resentment looking to destroy the Ayres family, or keep outsiders out (or, heck, if there were ay indication of some connection between Faraday and "Suki" that his return might have reawakened the ghost in the house he loved so much), that would be something, but instead, it just moves the movie toward an ending.

It doesn't help that Domhnall Gleeson is an uncharacteristically weak link in the cast. Maybe he's just doing what director Lenny Abrahamson asks, playing Faraday as a sort of repressed would-be gentleman who only fractionally becomes emotional when he's pulled toward or pushed away from The Hundreds, and thus just can't act overtly diabolical enough to create some suspense. He's dull, too much so to spark with Ruth Wilson despite her being excellent, down to earth despite also betraying both the evidence and knowledge of her separation and difference in class in all her scenes.

Pity. One can see the pieces of a Gothic thriller placed at the point where such things were becoming obsolete here, but they're never assembled into something that either quickens the pulse or makes one ponder the end of an era. It's not even particularly lurid at any point, just a somewhat interesting idea that the filmmakers can't decide what to do with.

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