The Little Stranger review – Ruth Wilson shines in mournful ghost story

Death and decline haunt postwar Britain as Sarah Waters’ novel is brought to deliciously sinister life by Lenny Abrahamson

The haunts of childhood are revisited in this oppressively macabre ghost story, set in the miserable austerity of late-40s Britain and in some ways a metaphor for the nation’s complex sense of sacrificial loss. Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon has adapted the 2009 novel by Sarah Waters and Lenny Abrahamson directs, bringing to it the sense of enclosing dread and claustrophobic dysfunction familiar from his previous picture, the abduction-abuse nightmare Room. The Little Stranger is fluently made and really well acted, particularly by Ruth Wilson, though maybe a bit too constrained by period-movie prestige to be properly scary.

Domhnall Gleeson plays Faraday, a young Warwickshire country doctor: first name unmentioned, second name perhaps an allusion to the famous scientist, given his belief in electric-current massage for pain-relief and his non-belief in ghosts. He has a ramrod-straight bearing, a clipped moustache and equally clipped manner of speaking, very different from the relaxed, worldly manner of his fellow medics. Gleeson’s performance suggests he’s affecting a severe professionalism to cover up his lowly origins.

It’s the summer of 1948 and Faraday finds himself back in the village where he grew up, and one of his very first house-calls is to the grand mansion that fascinated him as a boy, Hundreds Hall. A maidservant there, Betty (Liv Hill) has stomach pains, but Faraday’s no-nonsense examination reveals them to be exaggerated or invented. A female-hysteric case of nerves, as often airily diagnosed by the male profession of the day – or something darker, weirder?

At the same time, Faraday makes the acquaintance of the family. The notional master of the house is Rod Ayres (Will Poulter), a former RAF pilot badly burned in combat, who now has depression, and is grumpily obsessed with the way the house is deteriorating and the Labour government’s punitive death duties. His mother, Mrs Ayres, is in situ: enigmatic, reserved, disquieting and played by Charlotte Rampling. But the real boss is Rod’s hardworking sister, Caroline, outstandingly played by Wilson. She is friendly and unselfconsciously careless of her appearance in ways that will seem eccentric as she grows older, an English countrywoman of the sort imagined by Nancy Mitford. But all three seem to be going slowly mad in their own ways, driven to the brink by something in the house itself.

Faraday’s own secret is that his late mother was a maid at Hundreds Hall and he has come to think of this strange, dilapidated place and its strange, dilapidated family as exemplars of prewar innocence: a bizarre version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead. And as his friendship with Caroline blossoms into a nervous, protective romance, there is the thrill of a romantic or sexual conquest over his own humble beginnings. But there is something else. Faraday is obsessed with the memory of attending a party there as a child, breaking an ornate picture frame and being caught in the act by Rod and Caroline’s adored sister Suki – who later died of diphtheria at eight years old. Has Faraday’s remembered transgression and present-day quasi-haunting accelerated a supernatural crisis?

Abrahamson shows how the awful tensions and rigidities of the English class system create the right atmosphere of denial – they incubate the horror. A stratum of society that holds on to the past is ripe for haunting. There is an excruciating scene in which Faraday is invited to an evening drinks party there (black tie, naturally) and the other attendees have to be periodically reminded that he is there as a guest, an equal, and no one is ill. But then there is a grisly incident, a moment of nightmarish horror in which Faraday’s qualifications turn out to be vital. It is at an event like this that poor Rod, unable or unwilling to leave his chaotic room, reveals himself to be paralysed with fear at what the house contains.

Wilson’s Caroline is the beating heart of the film and she is superb, not least in a scene at a local dance, where she is thrilled to recognise a female friend from wartime and dances extravagantly with her – to Faraday’s chagrin – hinting at a sexual identity she has concealed from everyone, especially herself. And all the time, the sinister presence in the house grows, like mould on the walls. An elegant, sinister tale of the uncanny, with its own streak of pathos.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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