Much of this adaptation of Sarah Waters’s 2009 novel plays out against a gauzy, half-lit gloaming. It looks as though the story is filtered through the ghost of cigar smoke from other, happier times. The film is smothered in a suffocating pall of doomy gothic atmosphere. Why, then, does this handsomely mounted tale of a country doctor and a seemingly cursed aristocratic family not quite work? There are pacing issues in a brooding, cautious middle section, but nothing terminal. There is also the problem that this elusive supernatural mystery has been mismarketed as a horror – unfortunate, certainly, but not the fault of the film.
The main issue, perhaps, is the casting. Ruth Wilson, playing Caroline, the daughter of the Ayres family of Hundreds Hall, is tremendous. She has nailed the physicality of the character – Caroline’s gait is the wide-hipped stomp of a woman who spends her time striding across her land with a labrador and a shotgun. Charlotte Rampling, the Ayres matriarch, has perfected the art of wafting through a film like an icy wind. But Will Poulter, playing the war hero son, is upstaged by his own prosthetic scars. And Domhnall Gleeson’s portrayal of the doctor, through whose envious eyes we view the family, seems off-key. All terse, staccato line readings and hard-eyed scrutiny, we get a sense of obsession, but not of the violence of passion that the character requires.