So old British grand houses are sort of the perfect location for a horror film to take place in. There’s this sense of history and conflict within them that give off a creepy atmosphere. Enter Lenny Abrahamson, whose previous two films, Frank and Room, were excellent. It was really his involvement that got me excited, combined with him once again working with Domhnall Gleeson, with their work together in Frank working wonders for that film. In this film though, despite some interesting ideas and incredible production design, the film never really comes together.
The film takes place in 1948 with Dr Faraday, a country doctor, being hired to work at Hundred’s Hall, where his mum used to work as a maid. Whilst Hunter’s Hall was a sight of spectacle in the past, it was reduced to a shell of its former self, with the Ayres family, who own the house, being all but bankrupt. As Faraday spends more time in the house caring for Roderick Ayres, who was severely injured in World War 2, he gets closer with Caroline Ayres. However, as Faraday spends more time in the house, more supernatural events start to occur, with the spectre of the dead members of the Ayres family hanging over the house. Now starting with what works, the way the film explores the nature of nostalgia for English country houses is excellent. Right from the start we see the connection that Faraday has with Hunter’s Hall and the powerful memories it evokes in him. As the film goes on though, we also see the more subjective side of nostalgia, blocking out painful memories, and also the danger that can be caused by nostalgia, although I won’t spoil the way this unfolds. There are also interesting ideas about the nature of the supernatural presence and the ideas of untreated mental illness in post-War Britain. However, this element is something that I think could have been explored in more detail. This is also true for themes regarding the class difference between Faraday and the Ayres family and the struggle Faraday faced rising to become a doctor, the tensions that result from class differences and the way in which the Atlee government impacted the lives of the characters, from the estate tax impacting the Ayres family to the implementation of the NHS creating some worries for Faraday. These are interesting ideas and I wish the film explored these more to give it more weight.
The performances are solid across the board. Whilst I can’t really say much for fear of spoiling the film, Domhnall Gleeson gives a great performance here effectively showing the nostalgia he has for Hunter’s Hall, with his performance getting more unsettling as the film goes on. Ruth Wilson as Caroline is strong as well, showing the pressure she feels whilst in the house and her desire to be anywhere else but the house, taking any chances for escapism that she can. Will Poulter as Roderick continues to show why Poulter is one of the most underrated actors working today, working well with the make-up used to show his war injury, whilst also showing the lasting psychological issues he has and how the house is making them worse. Charlotte Rampling and Liv Hill do solid work, but to talk more about them would spoil the film so I won’t say any more.
On a technical level, Lenny Abrahamson continues to show how strong a director he is. Working with editor Nathan Nugent and DP Ole Bratt Birkeland, he creates an effective atmosphere throughout the film so that even the most normal scenes have this unsettling air to them, letting you know that there is something wrong with the house, with this being aided by strong sound design. The production design for Hundred’s Hall is the star of the film though. There’s a sense of history to the house where you can feel the grand scale that it used to have, but how years of neglect have led to the charm being erased from the house, leaving a husk in its place. You can also feel the potential of the house and the surrounding land to be better, as seen through the sub-plot involving a portion of the land being sold to develop housing. The way the damp, cold and general wear and tear of the house is presented makes it clear why the characters find it so unsettling, with this doing a great job at building the horror atmosphere of the film.
Overall, The Little Stranger, whilst an effective horror film, is clearly held back from what it wants to be. You can feel the desire to make this a powerful look at the social structure of post-War Britain, particularly relating to class, but the film ends up trying to do too much. When it focuses on creating horror and atmosphere through the lens of nostalgia, then it works wonders, but the other thematic elements of the film just aren’t given enough time to be truly developed, leaving this as a bit of a missed opportunity, as effective as it is.
My Rating: 3.5/5