By Mark Saldana
Rating: 2 (Out of 4 Stars)
Inspired by the gothic novel by Sarah Waters, Academy Award nominated director Lenny Abrahamson (Room) has created a gloomy and occasionally eerie film that looks gorgeously dank and has plenty of mood to spare. However, given all of its fine world building and aesthetic wickedness, the story ultimately falls flat and fails to deliver any real fright. Though the cast members deliver earnest and committed performances, the film’s failures make all of their fine work all for so little.
Domnhall Gleeson stars as Dr. Faraday, a physician from humble beginnings who, through most of his life, has been infatuated with the lush and glamorous lives of the wealthy Ayres family. Because his mother once served them as a housekeeper, Faraday has been a close friend of the family. After World War II, Faraday returns home to work as a local doctor, but the war has definitely had an impact on his town. The once lavish Ayres family and their immense estate have also been in decline. Son Roderick (Will Poulter) has returned home from the war with debilitating injuries and visible scarring. As a trusted near-member of the family, Dr. Faraday gets called to assist Roderick with medical treatment and counseling. Upon his arrival at the Ayers home, fond nostalgia reignites Faraday’s love for the family and fuels his attraction to Roderick’s single sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson). A melancholy and foreboding mood seems to have consumed the family, however, and some bizarre and creepy occurrences begin to concern Faraday. Either some kind of mental disturbances have plagued the Ayres family or something dark and sinister is haunting them.
With an adapted screenplay by Lucinda Coxon, Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger offers plenty of doom and gloom, but ultimately feels like a waste of time and talent. I sat in the theater initially captivated with the production design, cinematography, costumes and characters, but then nothing truly scary ever happens. The movie plays like one big tease with little to no impact. Based on my research of the novel, author Waters intended her book to reflect the postwar class upheaval and decline which Abrahamson and Coxon handle mostly adequately. Still, I certainly expected the film to deliver more scares. With the exception of a couple of disturbing moments, there are none.
As I previously noted the cast all offer fine work with Domnhall Gleeson performing solidly as the reserved and repressed skeptic Dr. Farraday. Lovely actress Ruth Wilson stars as the earthy and frumpy Caroline Ayres, a somewhat late bloomer who shares an awkward and nearly forced relationship with Farraday. Wilson superbly embodies the character and both she and Gleeson share a chemistry that mixes tension and discomfiture. Veteran actress Charlotte Rampling gives a hauntingly mournful and stupified turn as the Ayres matriarch. Finally, but not leastly, Will Poulter’s melancholy turn as injured and traumatized war veteran Roderick adds much to the dark tone of the film.
However, perfectly tone, aesthetic beauty, and great acting are not enough to save this slowly sinking ship of a movie. Abrahamson and his art crew certainly have the gifts to create a beautiful looking movie. But, it is all window dressing and setup for weak horror beats, an ultimately disappointing climax and a resolution that makes little sense. I am not totally unconvinced that horror is a style the director can handle, but he will need a better story, script and improved direction to do it effectively and memorably.