Based on a novel by Sarah Waters, “The Little Stranger” takes place in England a short time after World War II. Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is summoned to Hundreds Hall, a large estate in the country owned by the remains of the Ayres family — adults Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and Roderick (Will Poulter), children of Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling). The family’s sole maid, the young Betty (Liv Hill), has seemingly taken ill and is in need of a house call. When the good doctor arrives and examines the young servant, she tells him there is something amiss in the house.
Faraday (as he is frequently called — does he have a first name?) dismisses the girl’s concerns to paranoia, inexperience, and a large decaying house. Yes, the once great Ayres family has fallen on hard times — the mansion is in disarray, the money is running out. While Mrs. Ayres does her best to keep up appearances, her son, disfigured in the war and doing his best to manage things, is ready to start selling off some of their land to make ends meet. He, like Betty, also seems to think something more sinister is in the house, and Faraday chalks it up to “war shock.” Faraday, meanwhile, admits he has been to the house before, as a child, his mother having been a member of the staff in the estate’s heyday. He was smitten with the house’s grandeur then, and still harbors some feelings for it now that he’s returned.
For the first hour or so of the movie we get lots of character development between Faraday and the Ayres family…and very little else. Not to say other things don’t happen, but in a film where we are shown people acting foreboding, even very early in the story, we don’t actually get much of anything to indicate why. Instead we get what appears to be a slightly depressing period romance. Faraday keeps finding excuses to visit the family (and quench his obsession with the house), and starts spending more time with Caroline.
When stuff finally does start happening, it never happens to the doctor of course. Faraday refuses to accept that the events he is told about are anything other than the delusions of the various family members. But, of course, one after another the family members seem to be having the same type of delusions, things start to get a little violent, and eventually the film reaches its climax.
The novel by Sarah Waters has garnered very good reviews, including comparisons to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which I have read and enjoyed. I assume that means Waters’ book is considerably better than the movie that adapted it. I can enjoy a good slow burn movie as much as the next person, but damn parts of this film were just boring to me. I definitely found myself questioning the marketing of the film as I sat in the theater. It certainly presented the film as a gothic supernatural mystery, but failed to live up to that expectation.
While boasting an excellent cast giving mostly great performances (Mr. Gleeson plays Faraday a little too stiffly, but Will Poulter’s performance surprised me), “The Little Stranger” just fell flat. It didn’t work as a ghost story, nor did it appear to work as a gothic period romance. Of course, reglardless of what the filmmakers wanted it to be, it committed the worst sin it could for either genre — just being dull. The ending itself was even slightly confusing as to what it wanted — or didn’t want — to tell its audience about what they just witnessed.
Final Grade: C
Fun Fact: Will Poulter was originally signed on to play Pennywise the Clown in the big screen adaptation of Stephen King’s “It.” With various behind the scenes changes and delays, he had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts.