Lenny Abrahamson’s follow-up to his moodily claustrophobic, Oscar-nominated “Room” is set in a larger space than that movie’s hostage shed—a rambling gothic estate in post-war Warwickshire—but the characters in “The Little Stranger,” adapted from a 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, are no less trapped than those in the earlier film. Whether you will care about them nearly as much is questionable, though.
Those virtually imprisoned in Hundreds Hall, as the crumbling mansion is called, are the surviving members of the Ayres family, hard-edged matriarch Angela (Charlotte Rampling), who still mourns the loss of her younger daughter Susan (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), nicknamed Suki, years ago from illness, and her two surviving children—Roderick (Will Roderick), who has returned from the war with a disfigured face and an injured leg, and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who spends a good deal of her time walking through the woods with her faithful dog and tends to the household needs as best she can, scowling over the sad reality of her situation. The new Labour government is taxing what little remains of the old family fortune, and Roderick, a self-pitying recluse, is preparing to sell off a part of the land to developers who plan to put up small houses for lesser folk.
But the Hall has another victim, Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a physician from the nearby village whose parents worked themselves to death to pay for his education and who has now returned to serve the populace. A prim, fastidious man, supremely confident in his knowledge and skill, he has been obsessed with the place since he visited it for a village fête back in 1919; his mother had worked there as a maid, and her old colleagues had invited her and the boy (played in flashbacks by Oliver Zetterström) inside. He had wandered through the house enthralled by its opulence, and even broke off a wooden ornament as a souvenir—an act his mother had been furious over.
Now Faraday is called in to treat Betty (Liv Hall), the sole maid left in the place. The young girl feigns illness because she’s frightened of the place and hopes to get fired so she can leave. It’s the entrée he’s always longed for, and he insinuates himself into the family, offering to treat Roderick’s leg with a contraption he’s designed and commiserating with Caroline, whom he’s interested in from the start. When he’s invited to one of the rare parties thrown by Mrs. Ayres for their neighbors, he’s called into service not only to persuade Roderick to come down from his room, but to tend to a young guest, a girl (Dixie Egerickx) badly mauled by Caroline’s dog, which he then has to put down.
It’s the first act of violence that occurs in the house, but not the last. As Faraday becomes a fixture at Hundreds Hall, a companion for Caroline and eventually—he hopes—her husband, others will follow. Roderick will eventually be taken off to a mental institution, and after his departure Mrs. Ayres discovers scrawls in the woodwork, the capital letter “S” endlessly repeated and occasionally Suki’s name as well. The bells in the kitchen, installed years before to summon servants to various rooms of the house, begin to ring of their own accord.
Is the house haunted by the spirit of Suki, or a poltergeist? It certainly seems so, though rationalist Faraday rejects such explanations. Against Caroline’s hopes of leaving the place, he wants nothing more than to marry her and remain, finally becoming the lord of the manor he’s always dreamed of being, though the manor is but a fading reflection of what it was in his childish memory. Or does the real malignancy arise from the longing that’s colored his entire life, to break the British class barrier that’s kept him in a subservient position and always must—his wish, if you’ll excuse the pun, to put on Ayres, as it were?
“The Little Stranger” has been lovingly assembled from a visual standpoint. Simon Elliott’s production design is outstanding, creating an interior for the hall that’s detailed in its faded elegance and near-tactile mustiness, and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland uses light and shade to render it, and the exteriors, in burnished widescreen images. Steven Noble’s costumes contribute expertly to the period look. Editor Nathan Nugent’s stately pacing is a major factor in creating the moody, languid feel Abrahamson is after, as is Stephen Rennick’s atmospheric score.
The cast also falls in with the directorial vision. Gleeson is all stiff precision, his ramrod posture and slightly pursed lips embodying in small gestures Faraday’s pretensions. Rampling is her customary imperious self, and Poulter captures Roderick’s depression at his woeful physical and emotional condition. Most importantly, perhaps, Wilson, with her masculine bearing and sorrowful smile, embodies the sad fall of the house of Ayres.
For all its virtues, however, “The Little Stranger” fails to match the best of the films it’s emulating, like Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” (based on Shirley Jackson) or Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents” (based on Henry James). It’s admirable that Abrahamson mostly eschews gore, for example, but he seems almost ashamed of the story’s scary moments, which he stages so discreetly that they pretty much fail to register. (A sequence of a bloody body is ineptly choreographed, italicizing the director’s dislike of explicit violence, but others of poltergeist activity are also blandly conceived.)
In fact, what the film actually appears to be about is spectral activity of a more curious sort. Yes, it might be Suki, or some other poltergeist, who’s responsible for what’s happening at Hundreds Hall. But what Waters and Abrahamson seem to be suggesting is that it’s Faraday who’s the stranger (and a little one, when he first enters the house) who is subconsciously causing the eerie goings-on through his obsession with climbing the social ladder; the malignant force would thus be a version of the Id Monster from “Forbidden Planet” (making Faraday’s offhanded comment at one point that he’s not a psychiatric doctor a sign of his obliviousness to the truth).
Of course, Abrahamson’s film is content to close things on an ambiguous note, and thus leave most viewers perplexed, bored, and perhaps even angry. One can admire all the craftsmanship that went into “The Little Stranger,” but in the end its impact is as wispy as a ghost.