THE STORY – During the long, hot summer of 1948, Dr. Faraday travels to Hundreds Hall, home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries. The Hall is now in decline, and its inhabitants — mother, son and daughter — remain haunted by something more ominous than a dying way of life. When Faraday takes on a new patient there, he has no idea how closely the family’s story is about to become entwined with his own.
THE CAST – Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter & Charlotte Rampling
THE TEAM – Lenny Abrahamson (Director) & Lucinda Coxon (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 111 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
After wowing audiences three years ago and receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Director in the process for “Room,” director Lenny Abrahamson is back with “The Little Stranger.” Only this time, the adaptation is saving as a genre exercise instead of a thoughtful and empathetic look at human beings and the struggles they go through. Releasing this weekend with little backing from Focus Features, it’s easy to see why “The Little Stranger” is being cast aside. It’s no “Room” and quite frankly, I’m not even sure it knows what it wanted to be in the first place.
During the summer of 1948, Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is called to see to an ill young maid (Liv Hill) at Hundreds Hall, the once wealthy estate where his mother used to work. The house has been owned for generations by the Ayres family but has been in decline in recent years. No longer filled by servants and guests, the house is run by the last remaining members of the Ayres family: the man of the house Roderick (Will Poulter), his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and their mother (Charlotte Rampling). Continuously drawn back to the house and the people living inside of it, Dr. Faraday starts to wonder if the occupants are haunted by their own traumatic past experiences or something else entirely.
“The Little Stranger” begs us to care about its characters, however the direction by Lenny Abrahamson focuses more on style and mood to create a manipulating and confusing feeling of dread instead of navigating through the more monotonous aspects of the screenplay. Are the inhabitants of the Hundreds Hall mentally ill due to years of trauma or is there something more sinister afoot? Had the pacing not been so slow and the screenplay so aimless, it’s possible I would’ve cared more. Instead, “The Little Stranger” has a few strong elements working in its favor but none of them ever seem to come together to create a film that even comes close to Abrahamson’s last emotionally gripping directorial effort.
Just as the character of Dr. Farraday is drawn to the house and its people, we too are drawn into him through the use of many extreme close-ups with shallow depth of field. However, the character is never given a spark of life by Domhnall Gleeson to make us care about his desires and motivations. He’s poised, calm, intelligent but without any distinct personality quirks, or changes in demeanor, Gleeson puts us to sleep every time he is on screen. Thankfully, the supporting cast helps to keep the audience invested, delivering full performances that garner our attention. Ruth Wilson (Showtime’s “The Affair”) is a tortured soul filled with empathy while Will Poulter (“Detroit”) continues to show us his range as her disfigured and emotionally damaged brother. When either one of these two are on screen, the film, like the house they occupy, finally feels alive.
The design elements are serviceable as the house itself is vast, with high ceilings, long hallways, and generations of it memories occupying its space. The green and grey cinematography provides the film with a chilling look while the sound elements (especially a scene involving a room with poor acoustics) are the best technical aspects of the film. The tone is consistently a problem though as Abrahamson doesn’t ever seem to make it clear if this is supposed to be a supernatural ghost story or a disturbing domestic drama. One long extended sequence taking place at a dance party starts to suggest that “The Little Stranger” is concerned with a twisted romantic relationship between its two leads, which is preposterous considering they have absolutely zero chemistry together. Once again, Abrahamson’s skill is certainly on display as he tries to lure us in with these elements but with an emotionally detached protagonist and a trite screenplay lacking in focus, it’s hard to be haunted by “The Little Stranger.”
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Chilling design elements and strong supporting turns from Ruth Wilson and Will Poulter
THE BAD – Domhnall Gleeson’s expressionless performance. A meandering, slow-burn story that never fully grips you.