The Little Stranger is what you would call a haunted house mystery, although that description may already give an inaccurate impression of the film. Skillfully adapted for the screen by Lucinda Coxon, from a novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger is more focused on its unusual characters and their relationships than on its mystery, and as such it might not please those who are looking to be scared in the usual manner of ghosts and spirits who go “Boo!” It is, however, unsettling, or an even better word would be “upsetting.” For in addition to its fine portrayal of people behaving under stress, it shows a deliberate interest in the unconscious, that which is buried deep beneath our inner awareness, yet influences our actions in disturbing and unexpected ways.
Domhnall Gleeson plays Faraday, an English doctor who works tirelessly to help the often impoverished patients in his small town. The time is the late 1940s. One day he is summoned to the upper class home of the Ayers family, to treat their young maidservant. The imposing mansion, called Hundreds Hall, is owned by a family matriarch played by Charlotte Rampling, and by her two grown children, Roderick (Will Poulter) who was injured and horribly maimed in a crash when he was a World War II pilot, and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), the weary and strong-willed daughter, responsible for the difficult task of maintaining the household, which has fallen into disrepair as the family’s economic fortunes have declined.
As it happens, Dr. Faraday’s mother was a servant at Hundreds Hall for a period before his birth, and he has one vivid childhood memory from decades earlier, of visiting the home with his mother during a birthday celebration for the Ayers’ first daughter Susan, nicknamed Suki. Later in the film, we discover that little Suki died suddenly only a few days after this party.
Caroline is impressed with the doctor’s treatment of their maid, and he then offers to provide her brother Roderick with a new experimental treatment that he’s developed, in order to help Roderick with his bad leg. Gradually, Faraday is sucked into the sad and isolated little world of the Ayers family, with their mother who still grieves for the little girl who died long ago, the brother with his self-loathing and fits of rage, and especially the daughter Caroline, with whom he starts to develop an emotional attachment. Then some weird things start to happen.
The Little Stranger is directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who gained fame for directing Room, the film about a mother and child held in captivity that won an Oscar for its star, Brie Larson. In style, The Little Stranger is Abrahamson’s most sophisticated yet. There is a patient and meticulous evocation of mood throughout the picture that builds to an unexpectedly powerful emotional climax. The solution to the mystery is not obvious, and not overtly explained, but if you pay attention, particularly to the conversations between Faraday and one of his fellow physicians, you will get it.
The performances are first rate all around, and especially Domhnall Gleeson, who appears to be a different person in every film I see him in. With his short-cropped hair and stiff posture, Faraday seems like a proper Victorian type, willful but sensitive. Gleeson makes him real and believable all the way, and he also portrays the way the character changes, or perhaps it’s just how we see him that changes as we get to know him better. This is masterful work, and The Little Stranger is a fascinating peek into the dark crevices of the mind.