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THE LITTLE STRANGER tells the story of Dr. Faraday, the son of a housemaid, who has built a life of quiet respectability as a country doctor. During the long hot summer of 1948, he is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked. The Hall has been home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries. But it is now in decline and its inhabitants - mother, son and daughter - are haunted by something more ominous than a dying way of life. When he takes on his new patient, Faraday has no idea how closely, and how disturbingly, the family's story is about to become entwined with his own.Written by
It's meant to be Christmas and yet when Faraday and Caroline take a walk in the grounds to see the site for the new houses the trees in the background are in full leaf. See more »
You're right about the houses. My mother would've liked one. She might be alive and living in one if she hadn't worked herself into an early grave to get me an education.
I'm sure she was very proud of you. Your father too.
All I learned was to be ashamed of them.
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An "atmospheric chamber drama" without any atmosphere
I remember when I first saw Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice (2014) (which I loved), a colleague of mine (who hated it) was unable to grasp why I had enjoyed it so much. I tried to explain that if he had read Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel, he'd have appreciated the film a lot more, to which he posited, "one shouldn't have to read the book in order to appreciate the film." I think I mumbled something about him being a philistine, and may have thrown some rocks at him at that point. So imagine my chagrin when I watched the decidedly underwhelming The Little Stranger, a huge box office bomb ($417,000 gross in its opening weekend in the US), and easily the weakest film in director Lenny Abrahamson's thus far impressive oeuvre. You see, I really disliked it, but the few people I know who have read Sarah Waters's 2009 novel (which I have not), have universally loved it, telling me I would have liked it a lot more if I was familiar with the source material. To them, I can say only this - "one shouldn't have to read the book in order to appreciate the film." It seems my colleague was right after all. I hate that.
Warwickshire, England, 1948. Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is a country physician obsessed with the opulent Hundreds Hall estate, owned by the aristocratic Ayers family, where his mother worked as a maid. However, by 1948, Hundreds is in a state of disrepair, with the Ayers in serious financial trouble. The house is now home to only four people - Angela Ayers (Charlotte Rampling), matriarch of the Ayers dynasty, and who never recovered from the death of her eight-year-old daughter, Susan; Caroline (Ruth Wilson), her daughter; Roderick (Will Poulter), Angela's son, a badly-burned RAF pilot suffering from PTSD; and Betty (Liv Hill), the maid. When Betty takes ill, Faraday is summoned, soon ingratiating himself into the family, and becoming a semi-permanent presence in Hundreds. However, as mysterious things start to happen, Angela becomes convinced the spirit of Susan is with them. Meanwhile, Faraday and Caroline become romantically involved.
Aspiring to blend elements of "big house"-based mystery narratives such as Jane Eyre (1847), Great Expectations (1861), and Rebecca (1938), with more gothic-infused ghost stories such as "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), The Turn of the Screw (1898), and The Haunting of Hill House (1959), The Little Stranger is not especially interested in the supernatural aspects of the story per se. In this sense, Abrahamson and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon have, to a certain extent, created an anti-ghost story which eschews virtually every trope of the genre. More a chamber drama than anything else, the film has been done absolutely no favours whatsoever by its trailer, which emphasises the haunted house elements and encroaching psychological dread. Indeed, to even mention the supernatural elements at all is essentially to give away the last 20 minutes of the film, as this is where 90% of them are contained.
The main theme of the film is Faraday's attempts to ingratiate himself with the Ayers family, to transform himself into a fully-fledged blue blood, even when doing so goes against his medical training; his commitment to his own upward mobility is far stronger than his commitment to the Hippocratic Oath. He is immediately dismissive of the possibility of any supernatural agency in the house, and, far more morally repugnant, he does everything he can to convince those who believe the house is haunted that they are losing their minds, that the stress of what has happened to the family has pushed them to the point of a nervous breakdown. He's also something of a passive-aggressive misogynist, telling Caroline, "you have it your way - for now", and "Darling, you're confused". For all intents and purposes, Faraday is the villain of the piece, which is, in and of itself, an interesting spin on a well-trodden narrative path.
However, for me, virtually nothing about the film worked. Yes, it has been horribly advertised, and yes, it is more interested in playing with our notions of what a ghost story can be, subverting and outright rebelling against the tropes of the genre. I understand what Abrahamson was trying to do, however, so too does The Little Stranger shun the standard alternative to jump scares - creeping existential dread - and as a result, it remains all very subtle, and all very, very boring - the non-supernatural parts of the story give us nothing we haven't seen before, and the supernatural parts simply fall flat.
One of the main issues for me is Faraday's emotional detachment. I get that he's the ostensible villain, so we're not meant to empathise with him, and, as an unreliable narrator, his very role is to objectively undermine the subjective realism of the piece. However, Gleeson practically sleepwalks his way through the entire film, getting excited or upset about (almost) nothing; on a stroll through the estate with Caroline, she apologises for dragging him out into the cold, and he replies, "Not at all. I'm enjoying myself very much", in the most dead-tone unenthusiastic voice you could possibly imagine, sounding more like he is having his testicles sandpapered. So I know detachment is precisely the point, but, firstly, we've seen Gleeson play this exact same character before - all brittle, buttoned-down intellectualism - and secondly, he comes across as more robotic than detached, and after twenty minutes, I was thoroughly bored of him, and just stopped caring.
Partly because of this, and partly because of Coxon's repetitive script, the film is just insanely and unrelentingly dull. Now, I don't mind films in which nothing dramatic happens (The Rider (2017), which barely even has a plot, is one of my films of the year), but in The Little Stranger nothing whatsoever happens at all, dramatic or otherwise. Instead, the script just goes round and round, through the motions; "this house is haunted" - "no, you're just tired" - "you're probably right" - "I am, have a lie down" - "okay. Wait, this house is haunted" - "no, you're just tired", etc.; wash, rinse, repeat. The pacing is absolutely torturous, and I certainly envy anyone who was able to get more out of the narrative than the opportunity to take a nap.
One thing I will praise unreservedly is the sound design. Foregrounded multiple times, this aspect of the film often becomes more important than the visuals. For example, sound edits often bridge picture edits in both directions (L Cuts and J Cuts). Similarly, we repeatedly experience the sound of one scene carrying over into the image of another well beyond the edit itself, so much so that it becomes a motif, suggesting a distortion of reality. Just prior to a dog attack, the sound becomes echo-like and the picture starts to move in and out of focus, as the camera shows Faraday in a BCU, suggesting he is becoming unglued from his environment. This also happens later on with Roderick, just prior to a fire. Perhaps the most interesting scene from an aural perspective is a scene in the nursery near the end of the film. As Angela examines the room, the distorted and difficult to identify sound becomes unrelenting (it is easily the loudest scene in the film). However, as the other characters run through the house towards the noise, all sound is pulled out almost entirely, with only the barest hint of footfalls detectable. This is extremely jarring and extremely effective, working to emphasise the dread all of the characters are by now feeling.
However, beyond that, this just did nothing for me; there was nothing I could get my teeth into, I didn't care about any of the characters beyond the first half hour, the social commentary was insipid and said nothing of interest, the supernatural aspects are so underplayed as to be virtually invisible, and, most unforgivably, the film is terminally boring. Maybe if I'd read the book...
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