With the sound of a razor cutting across a cheek, director Lenny Abrahamson sets the tone for his gothic drama The Little Stranger. Based on the 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, the film tells the story of Doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a country physician with a lifelong obsession for Hundreds Hall — an 18th century estate now on the brink of collapse. In flashbacks, we see Faraday visiting the house as a child, exploring its hallways before being dragged away by his mother. When called to the house as an adult, his fascination for it is revived.
The family that inhabits the estate, the Ayres, are in decline too. We meet the mother (Charlotte Rampling), still grieving for a daughter she lost decades ago; the son Roderick (Will Poulter), a severely disfigured veteran; and the daughter Caroline (an excellent Ruth Wilson), who appears to be the sanest one in the family and quickly becomes a love interest for Faraday. As the doctor calls on the house with increasing frequency, strange things start happening, taking on the family one by one and leading them to believe it is the ghost of a dead daughter. But it becomes evident early on that the real haunting presence is, in fact, Faraday himself.
The film explores themes of class and the decline of the English aristocracy, with the modest country doctor constantly finding himself a stranger in the fading old house. It gives off hints of Downton Abbey, if Matthew had stuck around and haunted the place. Odd noises and sweeping shots keep the viewer in a constant state of suspense. The ghost story is not an entirely satisfying one, but it will keep the viewer guessing even after they leave the cinema. An interesting lens, and one that may shed another light on the film and explore an even more noteworthy theme, is provided when considering Sarah Waters’ previous work of lesbian and gay fiction. Watching the film with this in mind may shed new light on questions that it mostly glosses over.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons