It is the late 1940s. Faraday (Domnhall Gleeson), a gruff, dour and almost perpetually guarded doctor, is summoned to Hundreds Hall, an estate he once visited as a child, now in the possession of a disfigured Air Force veteran and his family. A curious incident at a house party, however, gives rise to suspicions of supernatural occurrences on the part of the house's owners, and as the situation develops, and connections are made despite the reigning social norms of the time as Faraday finds himself smitten with Caroline (Ruth Wilson), the youngest daughter of the Ayres family, everything culminates in a point where nothing may truly be as it initially seems...
In a genre plagued with an abundance of tiresome and trite found footage slop, even if this is only partly a feature that deals with inexplicable and seemingly otherworldly phenomena, seeing Lenny Abrahamson dive into this decidedly Gothic ghost tale so soon after receiving critical acclaim from Room offers a refreshing burst of vitality in its presentation. Paying tribute to its source material, gone are the standard trappings of the category, the end result being a flick that delivers competently on a more classical variation of a tried and true dramatic plot across its little-under-two-hours of screentime. For that, it might suffer in the eyes of the public, chiefly in relation to those who are unaware of the material or those who have been misled by classic aimless marketing to expect something more.
To call this adaptation of Sarah Waters' 2009 ghost story purely a supernatural yarn, however, would be doing both the film and a book a strong disservice. The finished product proves itself acutely aware of the social particulars that were dominant around the time of the film's setting, manifesting most evidently in the behavior Faraday exhibits towards Caroline and vice versa and the stern, matriarchal behavior of Rampling's Angela Ayres, contributing to the plot in a palpable sense. It is as much a period piece as it is a yarn involving ghosts, and its overall attention to the etiquette and mores of the time is commendable. The state of Hundreds Hall itself, decaying after years of consistent neglect and a pale shadow of the glorious beacon of wealth and status it once was in its prime, is deftly used an allegory for the mind - specifically, the minds of its cast, uncertain, muddled and in some cases on the brink of madness as the apparently supernatural happenings reach their crescendo alongside the more grounded and realistic difficulties and episodes the characters end up encountering. Indeed, the film plays at the 'ghost story' aspect of its narrative with an air of deliberate vagueness and uncertainty through the use of Hundreds Hall as the setting, and while at times its firm rooting in reality and almost classic British skepticism does threaten to become a touch overbearing, it lends a unique, invigorating flourish to the proceedings.#
At times The Little Stranger does become a touch too laborious, too dry, too well-trod with the general premise being recycled often throughout fiction. The cinematography capitalises on the Gothic angle well, making for striking visuals, but on the acting front, the performances beyond those of Gleeson, excelling as the hardened, nigh-perpetually glum Faraday, and Rampling are rather bog-standard and rote. It is a feature that prioritises the slow burn above all other attendant tropes, and is far from what the everyman should go to see if they are instead yearning for a more routine experience in the genre - reflected, perhaps, by its performance over in America. Nevertheless, The Little Stranger stands out as a worthy adaptation of a solid book, a film that hearkens back to the classics in its own way, and a decent treat for those interested in consuming more sophisticated and slow-going horror and dramatic fare.