The way Focus Features kept cancelling scheduled screenings of The Little Stranger made me think it had a stiff on its hands. Hardly. Though this meditation on the past — disguised as a haunted-house thriller — has its faults, the film is better than most of the junk cluttering the multiplex these days (looking at you, The Happytime Murders). Director Lenny Abrahamson earned much-deserved raves for 2015’s Room, which won a Best Actress Oscar for Brie Larson. So why sweep his latest, starring the talented likes of Ruth Wilson, Domhnall Gleason and Charlotte Rampling, under a rug?
Based on the 2009 a novel by Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger is perhaps hurt by a neo-Gothic atmosphere of dread that may lead audiences to expect cheap horror-show scares. But Abrahamson is far more interested in the bruised humanity of his characters. Gleeson brings hidden layers to the tightly-wound, perpetually glum Faraday, a Warwickshire country doctor of humble origins who finds himself called, in the summer of 1948, to make a professional visit to Hundreds Hall, a mansion where his mother once worked as a maid. Home to the Ayres family for centuries, the Hall has seen better days — you can almost smell it decaying. But the family matriarch, Angela (Rampling, reliably superb) still rules as if by divine right. Angela’s son Roderick (Will Poulter) has returned from the war covered in burn scars that underscore his even more serious PTSD. His sister Caroline (Wilson) appears normal enough for even the austere Faraday to develop an instant crush — but at Hundreds Hall, looks can be deceiving. Has Angela really ever gotten over her first daughter, Susan, who died years before at the tender age of eight? Is it the ghost of Susan making the floors groan, filling the halls with a banging noise and ringing a servant’s bell from an empty room?
It only sounds like a setup for a mid-century Paranormal Activity. Abrahamson cleverly uses the house as a metaphor for crumbling sanity. Witness the effect on Faraday, who is drawn back to his childhood when he (the titular little stranger) visited the Hall in its heyday, and felt “its cool, fragrant spaces” fill his dreams. In flashback, Abrahamson recreates the day of that glorious visit, with young Faraday (Oliver Zetterstrom) imagining himself part of a world out of reach.
The class system and its ruthless pecking order is something Abrahamson sews into the fabric of his film. Faraday’s courtship of Caroline is just another way to belong. Kudos to Wilson (how has she not won an Emmy for her brilliant work on The Affair?), who builds what seems at first like a peripheral character into the defiant soul of the movie. In the final scenes, Abrahamson reverts to the twists and tropes of the typical ghost story. But before that, he uses shivery suspense and a keen sense of character to craft The Little Stranger into a hypnotic and haunting tale of how the past can grab hold of the flesh-and-blood present and squeeze. Don’t let this mesmerizing mystery slip between the cracks of studio neglect and marketing indifference. It’s spellbinding.