Movie Review: Tedium and elegance accompany ‘The Little Stranger’
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Writer: Lucinda Coxon; Sarah Waters (novel)
Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling
Synopsis: After a doctor is called to visit a crumbling manor, strange things begin to occur.
The Little Stranger could have been a winning haunting. Should have.
A capable cast? Check. Material about people trapped in restricted spaces to be handled by a filmmaker who’s pretty much well-versed in that department? Major check. Yet, the final product is so perplexingly unengaging that one will wonder whether Lenny Abrahamson has his heart in all this way, way more than whether if the establishment has an (alleged) unwelcoming-presence problem.
Hundreds Hall used to be pristine. This is where fêtes were held and the well-dressed gathered. Now it’s a dour, lavish prison for members of the family who lives there — matriarch Angela Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and son/younger brother Roderick (Will Poulter) — to listlessly live out the day, now and then think of a way out and, this being most often, to sense things that aren’t there. These darknesses are shared with Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), who visits the Ayres often to treat Roderick’s war-induced PTSD. Little does everyone know, though, is that the doctor and the building is linked: When young, out of fascination with the estate, he snapped off an ornamental acorn as a souvenir. Flashbacks to this moment are often; it’s more or less the hall’s first step into decay…
So is the ghost in all this the metaphorical variant? What about Angela’s continuous claims that a disembodied “Susan” has been scribbling her initials behind her wardrobe and ringing all the servant’s bells in unison? It’s both in The Little Stranger, but the answer will not satisfy since Abrahamson doesn’t know how to deliver it.
For the former, he often displays indifference, making images brood at levels higher and lengths longer than necessary and bending the spotlight toward mood more than messages. It’s an outright betrayal to the effort writer Lucinda Coxon, who’s adapting this from author Sarah Waters’ 2009 book, has spent to sculpt the Ayres as shadows who believe that they still mean something today and will last tomorrow. The refusal to see where time has been zealously chipping at them — questionable mentality, declining fitness, eroding wealth and creaky dwelling — is astounding. While these ideas do get to speak, do know that Abrahamson will prevent them from reaching the ideal volume.
As for the latter, there are two sequences validating something supernatural in The Little Stranger — a bookcase that sets itself on fire while the narration suggests a person has done it; Angela is trapped in a room that shakes her into panic — that conjures legitimate uneasiness. From the freedom in the cutting to where the camera gets to be in the room, it seems Abrahamson is a liberated individual here. But since this isn’t the story’s focus, freedom is short-lived. Back toward over-expressed atmosphere we go. The chills from earlier, meanwhile, evaporate.
Had it not been for the performers — the properly utilized one, so apologies to Rampling and Poulter — the film would be a total loss. Though Gleeson is masterful at making Faraday an enigma we’ll always be compelled to decipher, it’s Wilson’s turn as Caroline that deserves your attention. With precise gazes and speech, she brings into view the growing weight on her shoulders, on her spirit from having to keep everything standing. Commendable, but the result won’t serve her.
And that’s how The Little Stranger grants you a sleepless night.
Overall Grade: D+
Podcast review coming soon!