‘There’s something evil in this house.’
Gothic cinema had its peak in the 1940s, when relationships and households were racked by fear, uncertainty and trepidation. No wonder The Little Stranger is being released in 2018. Whilst set in the late 40s there’s so much about it that feels immediate and relevant, with class struggles and ambiguity at the forefront both then and now.
Doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is called to attend Betty (Liv Hill), an ill housemaid who resides at Hundreds Hall. The 18th Century estate has become worn with time, unrecognisable from the last time Faraday entered it 30 years prior. Faraday soon deduces that Betty is feigning her symptoms in a bid to be sent home, as she feels a great deal of unease in her residence. It’s an unease that also haunts owner of the house disfigured WW2 veteran Roderick Ayers (Will Poulter), his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and their mother Mrs. Ayers (Charlotte Rampling). Either immune to the sense of foreboding or unwilling to acknowledge it due to being consumed by nostalgia, Faraday ingratiates himself into the family. His life becomes entwined with that of the Ayers, even as tragedy continues to strike.
There’s something immensely pleasing about how many Gothic boxes this film ticks – the ambiguity of character motivation, the complexity of human emotions and the possibility of supernatural intervention, to name but three. All of this occurs at a slow burn rate, things reveal themselves in time through a manner that raises more questions than it answers. The film shows us things leaving us to decide what it has actually told us. Amid all of this there’s the story’s primary focus on the nature of evil, family responsibility and the social upheaval of the British class system in the aftermath of world war two. And it’s a ghost story.
Director Lenny Abrahamson (who also directed Gleeson in Frank and directed Brie Larson’s Oscar nominated performance in Room) has made Sarah Waters 2009 book with the same name into a very literacy film, it ticks by in the manner of turning pages with building of tension resulting in cataclysm the manner of chapters in a book. Gleeson gives a very good yet very unlikeable performance as protagonist Faraday, a man born into poverty yet having found himself in a good and stable position as a doctor. Yet that is not enough for him, such is his want for status and acknowledgment – it drips off him and is transparent within his every action or claimed good deed.
Although he never says it, his pursuit of Wilson’s Caroline seems to be motivated by his socal ambition, his want is for the estate and not for her. It’s a carefully considered performance, detached from our sympathies as his maneuvering becomes increasingly manufactured and self-serving. Wilson is incredible as the thirty something called back home to look after her ailing brother and mother. She was a woman who found a degree of freedom and liberation during wartime, able to participate in the world in a way that she had previously been unable to during the so-called time of peace. She epitomizes the casualties of crumbling estates, weighed down by her social status yet without the fiscal wealth to preserve it – even if she really wanted to. The Ayers’ severe financial straits trap the family within the house, and the supernatural activity within it, all the while leaving them vulnerable to figures like Faraday.
Both haunting and haunted The Little Stranger is a Gothic delight that haunts long beyond the end credits.
The Little Stranger is in UK cinemas now.