The scariest thing about The Little Stranger might be the lack of progress in our generational attachment to an inherently futile social structure.
An icy chill hangs over every moment of The Little Stranger, a sophisticated period piece whose depiction of class upheaval in postwar England has the eerie and unsettling tone of a supernatural thriller. Director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon deliver a refined and delicate adaptation of Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel of the same name, creating the sense that the film, in style and substance, is akin to an abandoned artifact rediscovered in the dusty closet of decrepit estate, not dissimilar to the one depicted here. Everything within the frame—the characters, the setting, the cinematography—seems appropriately worn and weary, and there’s significant mood and beauty in its agedness. Themes of fear, death and aristocratic decay give the film a recognizably gothic feel, but what makes it truly haunting (and haunted) is the way it breathes aesthetic life into familiar genre territory.
“This house works on people,” claims Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), the elderly matriarch of Hundreds Hall, the sprawling but gradually rotting countryside estate deep within the West Midlands region of England. The local doctor, Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), knows this all too well. Growing up the only son of a working-class family from the nearby village, he was entranced by Hundred Hall’s opulence and splendor. One summer, during the estate’s annual Empire Day fête, he managed to sneak inside and snap off a piece of the foyer’s ornate molding for himself. As an adult and postwar working professional, visiting the now broken-down mansion on a house call, he’s embarrassed to admit this to Caroline (Ruth Wilson), Mrs. Ayres’ adult daughter, but insists it wasn’t criminally minded. “Imagine a lovesick boy taking a lock of hair from his beloved while she sleeps,” he says. Such an act, of course, has less to do with romance and more to do with perverse obsession, and in The Little Stranger, the most unsettling moments occur when we somehow find ourselves in the space between.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Faraday increases his visits to Hundreds Hall, first to provide special care to Caroline’s brother, Roderick (Will Poulter), who’s battling various physical maladies and extreme post-traumatic stress following his service in the RAF, and then to woo Caroline herself. Continuing a trend he established in his previous film, the Brie Larson drama Room, Abrahamson demonstrates a unique interest in character psychology as it relates to a specific space. Faraday’s burgeoning relationship with Caroline is directly tied to his buried fascination with the upper class—indeed, his lifelong desire to be associated with Hundreds Hall—even though it’s clear that the Ayers’ way of life is gradually decaying in the wake of WWII, a reality each character seems to be processing differently. Simply put, there are no reliable narrators in The Little Stranger, only unresolved trauma, frayed perspectives and shared psychosis. Coinciding with this state of disillusion is the creeping notion that the house is haunted by a malevolent spirit, perhaps that of Mrs. Ayers’ first daughter, Susan, who died at the age of eight and had a strange interaction with Faraday the afternoon he vandalized the home. The film doesn’t tip its hand one way or the other, leaving the possibilities as wide open as Hundred Halls’ long and empty corridors.
Abrahamson takes a giant step forward, stylistically, with The Little Stranger, anchoring the film’s core emotions and themes across a series of elegant and precisely framed images. Crucially, he understands that a horror film doesn’t necessarily have to scare people in order to be successful, it simply has to be scary, a distinction that lies in the discernible lack of jump scares and genre clichés and in the abundance of deeply unnerving images: a long-deserted drawing room full of old, moldy furniture; a black MG Y-type idling—headlights off—in a foggy forest at grey dawn; a body splayed at the foot of a dark stairwell. The director also utilizes sound to raise the overall tension: the house is so quiet and unpopulated that lines of dialogue ring like a bullet, and when the conversations die down, the house creaks and croaks in a such a way that one could easily mistake it for whispers and footsteps.
Even as the film ramps up an increasing sense of dread and tragedy, the mise-en-scène remains remarkably, disquietingly still, and therein lies the film’s best and most profound ideas. The Empire Day celebration we see in a series of flashbacks underlines the ironic fate of Hundreds Hall. The joy, the pageantry and the people belong to a bygone era, and Faraday’s obsession with it—as well as the idea that for the estate to survive, the order of things must be maintained—powerfully illustrates certain attitudes toward British post-war decline and the desperate attempts to remain in an empty, deteriorated past. The scariest and most memorable thing about The Little Stranger might be the lack of progress, both in the director’s engrossing and deliberately austere aesthetic choices and in our generational attachment to an inherently futile social structure.