“The Little Stranger” is a little gothic drama film shrouded in nervous ambiguity. Because it is adamantly unclear about what is exactly going on around its main characters, you may be frustrated and then disappointed with its rather inconclusive ending, but the movie is still an interesting genre piece decorated with enough mood and details to be appreciated, and I was mostly satisfied although I often felt impatient during my viewing.
Domhall Gleeson, who looks quite more restrained and constipated here compared to his overzealous supporting performance in “Star Wars: the Last Jedi” (2017), plays Dr. Faraday, a young doctor who has worked in some small rural British country town. In the opening scene, he is going to a big 18th century estate named Hundreds Hall for examining a young maid who works alone there, and he soon meets Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson) and her brother Roderick (Will Poulter), who have lived there along with their aging mother Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling). As Roderick usually prefers to be alone as a World War II veteran who is damaged both physically and mentally, Caroline is usually the one who takes care of their domestic matters, and Dr. Faraday later talks with her a bit after concluding that there is nothing particularly wrong with that young maid, who just seems to be affected by the moody atmosphere inside Hundreds Hall.
Although it looks shabby and desolate now, there was a time when Hundreds Hall looked bright and cheery, and Dr. Faraday remembers that good time well. His mother, who passed away years ago, once worked there as a maid, and she once took him there during the 1919 Empire Day party. While he was inside the mansion, young Faraday could not help but impressed by how big and beautiful the mansion was, and he also happened to encounter of the young daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Ayres, who was Caroline’s older sister and unfortunately died not long after the party for some reason.
Anyway, as still remembering that short but mesmerizing time at Hundreds Hall, Dr. Faraday comes to spend more time with the Ayres family, who subsequently decide to make the mood cheerier via holding an evening meeting for their close friends as well as Dr. Faraday. Although the weather is not so good outside, Dr. Faraday and other guests have a fairly good time along with Caroline and Mrs. Ayres in the drawing room, and it seems things will get better in Hundreds Hall.
However, as Roderick, who does not attend the evening meeting because he is drunk and reluctant to be with other people, fears, something quite bad happens around the end of the evening meeting, and that is followed by more misfortune for the Ayres family. As feeling more nervous and agitated than before, Roderick eventually comes to have a sort of nervous breakdown at one night, and he is consequently sent to a mental institution. Although quite depressed by this, Caroline tries to continue to take care of the estate as usual while supported and consoled by Dr. Faraday, she also cannot help but feel uncomfortable about her mansion – especially after she hears some strange sounds at night.
And then the situation becomes weirder as the main characters of the film witness several mysterious happenings in the mansion. At one point, we get a creepy moment as a number of bells in the kitchen which are connected to other rooms are rung by someone inside the mansion, and there later comes a terrifying scene involved with a nursery room which has been left empty for many years. While Mrs. Ayres comes to believe a certain possibility, Caroline becomes more nervous than before, and Dr. Faraday does not know what to do except trying to get closer to Caroline. As feeling more of the mutual feeling between them, he seriously begins to consider marrying Caroline especially after another bad thing happens in Hundreds Hall, but Caroline is not particularly willing to get married as planning to get away from everything including Hundreds Hall, and that certainly frustrates him a lot.
Steadily maintaining its low-key attitude, the movie, which is adapted from the novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, austerely sticks to the ambiguous atmosphere surrounding its main characters. The mansion in the house is constantly filled with that melancholic sense of decay and decline, and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland effectively establishes gray ambience on the screen, which is further supported by the understated score by Stephen Rennicks.
While Gleeson stays calm and detached in his somber lead performance, the other main performers bring some more emotions to the movie. While Ruth Wilson, who looks more subdued than her villainous supporting role in TV series “Luther”, is dependable as usual, Will Poulter and Charlotte Rampling are well-cast in their respective roles, and Liv Hill is also solid in her small but substantial supporting role.
“The Little Stranger” is directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who previously made “Frank” (2014) and “Room” (2015). While “Frank” was a quirky comedy about one eccentric musician who always wears a big papier-mâché mask over his head, “Room” was a harrowing drama about the relationship between a young mother and her young son who have been locked up together in a small room for several years, and these two films and “The Little Stranger” certainly show Abrahamson’s considerable flexibility among different genres. I have no idea on what will come next from him, but I guess we can have some expectation on that.