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New Release Review - THE LITTLE STRANGER

THE LITTLE STRANGER review
A doctor is drawn to a crumbling estate that appears to be menaced by a malevolent presence.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter

THE LITTLE STRANGER poster


Having garnered much critical acclaim and a Best Director Oscar nomination for his 2015 abduction drama Room, you imagine Lenny Abrahamson would have received multiple offers of directing gigs in Hollywood, so it's a surprise to see him return three years later with a relatively low-key British period drama.

Adapted from Sarah Waters' 2009 novel, The Little Stranger takes us back to the English coutryside in 1947, when the nation is in the process of recovering from WWII, and cracks are beginning to appear in the foundations of the British class structure. Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is the embodiment of a growing new social order that threatens the dominance of the upper class. The son of a housemaid, Faraday has studied and worked hard to attain the position of GP in the small village he grew up in.

THE LITTLE STRANGER review

On Faraday's rounds is Hundreds Hall, the once lavish but now decrepit country estate ruled over by aging matriarch Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling, in a role that requires much rampling). One day the doctor is called to Hundreds Hall to attend to its teenage maid Betty (Liv Hill), who complains of mystery pains. The young girl confesses that she is faking her illness in the hopes she will be sent away from the house, which terrifies her in a way she can't explain. While there, Faraday meets Mrs. Ayres' two children: Roderick (Will Poulter), a former RAF pilot left facially disfigured with burn scars and hobbling on a gammy leg; and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), Roderick's aloof younger sister.

Falling for Caroline, Faraday takes Roderick on as a patient, ignoring his warnings that an evil presence haunts the rooms of Hundreds Hall. It's a story Faraday initially dismisses, but increasingly disturbing events begin to cast doubt in his mind.

Recently we saw another Sarah Waters work get the big screen treatment in The Handmaiden, Park Chan-Wook's take on the author's 2002 thriller 'Fingersmith'. Watching Abrahamson's stiff adaptation, I couldn't help wonder what a more cinematic filmmaker like Chan-Wook might have done with this material. Abrahamson displays a disinterest in - or perhaps an embarrassment by - the horror element of his tale, instead focussing on the relationship between Faraday and his love interest Caroline, both of whom are so devoid of personality they come off as parodies of the British 'stiff upper lip' archetype. In Abrahamson's hands, Waters' Gothic chiller becomes a character study, but these aren't characters worth studying.

THE LITTLE STRANGER review

Abrahamson keeps the supernatural element at arm's length for so much of the narrative that when the point finally arrives where he is forced to acknowledge its presence, it comes off as jarring, like James Wan popped in to direct an out of context scene in an episode of Downton Abbey. The explanation for the haunting of Hundreds Hall is tossed off in unconvincing fashion, and the motivation for such malevolence is never made clear.

There's an interesting subtext regarding class conflict running beneath the surface of Abrahamson and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon's film, but the movie never digs deep enough to draw a convincing parallel between this element and the haunting subplot.

Coxon's verbose script is perhaps better suited to a TV mini-series than a big screen Gothic romance, overly reliant on voiceover and expository dialogue. Too often the film tells us its characters are scared without ever showing us why they're in such terror, as if hoping such fear might transfer to the audience; but we as viewers have little to be frightened by, as the movie keeps its horror element shut away like some dark secret locked in a room of a chilly mansion.

THE LITTLE STRANGER review

The cast do their best, but save for a hammy Poulter, everyone acts as if they've got an ironing board strapped to their backs, and the 36-year-old Wilson is miscast as a character 10 years younger than the 35-year-old Gleeson (she's also referred to as not being blessed with looks. Really? Ruth Wilson?).

Abrahamson and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland give their film the flat look of a British TV production. It's the least Gothic looking Gothic ghost story ever put to film, with none of the shadowplay you might expect from such a tale. The camera and its frame is never used to generate tension or suspense; it simply sits there observing characters tell us how terrified they are. If Abrahamson continues in this genre (on this evidence, lets hope he doesn't), he needs to learn how to scare an audience along with his characters.

The Little Stranger is in UK/ROI cinemas September 21st.




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