The Little Stranger movie review: so many ways to be haunted

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The Little Stranger green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A glorious gothic conundrum of obsession, delusion, psychological infection, and just possibly actual malevolent spirits. The most haunting aspect of this eerily enrapturing film may be the sly, maddening ambiguity of it all.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Lenny Abrahamson’s followup to Room is a completely different kind of harrowing, a glorious gothic conundrum of obsession, delusion, psychological infection, and just possibly — maybe — actual malevolent spirits. For me, looking in on the events at crumbling Hundreds Hall in rural Warwickshire in the summer of 1948, the most haunting aspect of The Little Stranger may be the sly, maddening, utterly enthralling ambiguity of it all.

Dude, what are you doing? Everyone knows not to walk up the creepy dark mysterious stairs!
Dude, what are you doing? Everyone knows not to walk up the creepy dark mysterious stairs!

Mild-mannered village doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson: Peter Rabbit, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) gets roped into the affairs of the Ayres family of Hundreds Hall when he is called in to treat maid Betty (Liv Hill) for what turns out to be rather unspecific complaints of discomfort and anxiety. Not unwillingly, Faraday gets sucked into their isolation in the once majestic, now shabby house: Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter: Maze Runner: The Death Cure, Detroit) struggles to run the estate with neither his mind nor his body in very good shape after the horrific injuries he suffered in the war; his sister, Caroline (Ruth Wilson: Suite Française, Saving Mr. Banks), now cares for him, and puts a brave face on what isn’t much of a life for herself; their mother, called just Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling: Red Sparrow, 45 Years), seems a fragile bird, a shell of the grand lady she once was, as we see in flashbacks to happier and more prosperous times.

Domhnall Gleeson gives his midcentury village doctor a chilling stillness. Is he creepy, or just English?

There clearly is “an awful thing in this house” that is driving everyone mad, as Roderick suggests… but is that awful thing the literal ghost of long-dead Ayres child Suki (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland in those flashbacks), or her metaphoric ghost? Is it the collapse of an entire way of life for England’s landed gentry, as the Ayreses are, in the wake of the devastating war and complete restructuring of British society? (Roderick mentions the 75 percent “death tax” that was redistributing wealth in that era, which would have impacted the family when Mrs. Ayres’s husband died; Roderick has just now been forced to sell off some of their land, which is being used for construction of new homes for the working class.) And if that’s the case, is gasoline being poured on that fire — either actually paranormally or merely figuratively, with the shift of cultural paradigms — by the seething covetousness of those who never had estates and titles and fortunes to lose at all? Like, perhaps, Faraday, who has a prior connection with Hundred Halls — his mother once worked as a maid there — and confesses to a fixation on the manor, which is plain to see in those flashbacks, to a village fete he attended at the hall as a child.

The bell-pull to summon a servant is coming from inside the house!
The bell-pull to summon a servant is coming from inside the house!

Of course, it could be all of these at once, and more. I have some further suspicions. Young Faraday is played by the preternaturally still Oliver Zetterström. Gleeson gives the adult version a chilling stillness as well. Is Faraday creepy, or just English? How come Faraday doesn’t have a first name? Does he lack a certain identity… or even a humanity?

And yet the sublime beauty of this eerily enrapturing film is that it’s never truly a puzzle to be solved — though even the title is open to interpretation: who (or what?) is the little stranger? — but an experience to immerse yourself in. Abrahamson’s focus is less on cause — what is behind these strange happenings? — than on effect: dear God, something terrible is coming, isn’t it? And when it does, we are left waiting with dread for the next terrible thing. The suspense here has a purity to it: it is solely about absorbing the quiet monstrosity of the moment. Still, by all but ignoring the questions, by giving them only cinematic side eye, Abrahamson ironically ensures that we become consumed by them in retrospect. I’m haunted by The Little Stranger still, days after I saw it and with plenty of other stories absorbed since, like very few would-be scary movies ever do for me.

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