Review of “The Little Stranger”

Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is called to Hundreds Hall to examine a young housemaid named Betty (Liv Hill). Betty isn’t sick, she doesn’t like Hundreds Hall. It is creepy and makes her feel uneasy. Hundreds Hall used to be a stately home but has fallen into disrepair over the years. Faraday’s mother used to be a servant at the home and he saw the home for the first time in 1917. Now 1947, Faraday is a doctor in his home town and still remembers the wonders of seeing Hundreds Hall. Living in the home is Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), her son Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter) and daughter Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson). The family has hit hard times and they cannot keep a staff on hand to maintain the home. There are issues among the family members as well. Roderick suffered severe burns during the war and is also showing signs of what we now call post traumatic stress disorder. He is depressed and drinking excessively. He’s in control of the family’s business but spends his days drinking and aimlessly shuffling papers. Dr. Faraday wants to try an experimental electrical treatment on Roderick’s scarred and twisted legs to relieve some of his pain. Faraday has ulterior motives: He is attracted to Caroline and is obsessed with Hundreds Hall. As Faraday spends more time at the home, odd events occur: The friendly family dog attacks a child’s face, Roderick sets his room on fire and is sent to an asylum and scratches appear in various places around the house. Sometimes it is just squiggles, but the squiggles soon become letters spelling out “Suki,” the nickname of Mrs. Ayres first child Susan that died back in 1917. More odd events occur, some of them more terrifying than others. Has the family just hit a patch of bad luck or is the angry spirit of Suki haunting the formerly stately home.

“The Little Stranger” is sold in the trailer as a tense horror movie. It isn’t. It is something far scarier: An examination of class and socio-economic upheaval in post-war Britain. A description like that would send most people screaming and running away from the theater. It isn’t quite the college mid-20th Century advanced European economics class I’ve made it sound like, but the movie is taxing. It requires a degree of patience to watch the story of class distinctions, manners and quiet, smoldering passion that eventually leads to a few mildly stressful scenes that are horror-adjacent. Still, I enjoyed “The Little Stranger” for how the characters seem to be one way but mutate into something almost unrecognizable.

The performances are a large part of what makes “The Little Stranger” so interesting to watch. Domhnall Gleeson’s Dr. Faraday is a coiled spring. We don’t see it at first and just marvel at his rigid posture and the plumb-line straight part in his hair. He walks with as little unnecessary motion as possible. This really pops out when you see him walking next to Ruth Wilson’s Caroline Ayres. She walks like a workman carrying a heavy load while he walks as if there’s a board strapped to his back.

That rigidity carries over into his emotions. Dr. Faraday is always in control. Happy, sad, angry, elated and disappointed all look roughly the same on Faraday’s face. There is a hint late in the film that his control has been beaten into him. We also see there’s a smoldering pit of rage hiding under that polished and practiced veneer of calm.

Gleeson is divine as Dr. Faraday. His performance is so subtle you don’t notice the small changes in the character that build up as the story progresses. It’s a marvelous bit of misdirection as we consider Faraday to be like a knight in shining armor coming to save this family from whatever demon is attacking them as the film begins. Soon some tarnish begins to show on that shiny armor and by the end we aren’t sure that the demon isn’t the one making a house call. It is a brilliantly measured and controlled performance that sneaks up on the audience.

Ruth Wilson portrays Caroline as the kind of woman we hear about in World War II documentaries that served during the war in a traditionally male role (whether in the military or the private sector) then had to resume a more accepted female role after the war. While she gave up her military commission to come home and help care for the injured Roderick, Caroline is still a strong and independent woman. Wilson shines in the role of a woman putting her own wants and needs on hold while she handles most of the household duties and helps care for her injured brother. Caroline’s desire to break free from the shackles of her responsibilities is always bubbling just under the surface and Wilson expresses the character’s feelings of stress beautifully. One brief scene has Caroline and Faraday kissing in the car parked in the woods near Hundreds Hall. Their mutual passion burns up the screen, but Caroline cannot let herself feel joy or pleasure and stops the encounter. The aggression and lust of this scene is palpable to a surprising degree as it is in such contrast to the repressive manners on display earlier. Both Wilson and Gleeson bared the souls of their characters in this scene and it is a turning point in the film.

The horror of the movie doesn’t have much to do with a possibly malevolent spirit in Hundreds Hall: It is the rigidity of the English class system and the erosion of its control and power. Dr. Faraday comes from common folk that worked hard to give him an education to become a physician. While he has the potential to become one of the upper-crust financially, he will never really BE one of them and he gets constant reminders to stay in his place. The knowledge he will never be considered an equal galls Faraday to no end and explains his obsession with Hundreds Hall and the Ayres when he gets an opportunity to be among them regularly. Flashbacks to his one childhood encounter with the home and family play a big part in telling the story and in explaining Faraday’s fixation.

I found the story and the performances interesting. That said, the pace of “The Little Stranger” is glacially slow. The story starts out as more of a domestic drama with small events happening every so often; but there isn’t much to quicken the pulse and raise goosebumps. The few moments of fear and tension are most charitably described as mild. The ending is unsatisfying as it doesn’t answer any questions about what happened. While that isn’t as damning as it sounds, the ending left a bad taste in my mouth as I wanted to know something concrete about what happened. Perhaps the ending is purposefully left ambiguous to allow the viewer to come to their own conclusions; but I would have preferred definitive closure.

“The Little Stranger” is rated R for some disturbing bloody images. The face of the little girl mauled by the dog is never seen clearly but the injury is very bloody. As a warning to anyone sensitive to such things, the dog is put to sleep as a result and it is sad to watch. The aftermath of a suicide using broken glass to slash wrists is shown. Foul language is scattered and mild.

After I left the movie I wondered if there wasn’t a ghost at all. Was someone in the house responsible for all the bad things happening to the Ayres family? I had a suspect I thought was the culprit but after some consideration it was clear this person wasn’t responsible. That’s part of the reason I think “The Little Stranger” is a movie you should see. It had me thinking after I left the theater. As much as I love a good superhero, sci-fi and action film, I rarely give even the really great ones much of a thought after I walk back out into the sunshine (I normally see a matinee). This film has been on my mind off and on since it ended. While it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, “The Little Stranger” is an interesting look at a time before I was born and a culture struggling to maintain a grip on power. There also may or may not be a ghost child trying to subtly kill everyone.

“The Little Stranger” gets three stars out of five.

This week has action, faith and horror for you to choose from. I’ll be seeing and reviewing one of the following:

God Bless the Broken Road—

The Nun—

Peppermint—

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