Class envy is a poltergeist in the often frustrating The Little Stranger
The historical relationship between the horror genre and the character study is an intimate one, dating back to the complex motivations and characteristics of the earliest Gothic heroes and villains that set the stage for centuries of bone-chilling storytelling. Horror is arguably one of the greatest stages for the delineation of character personalities, with some of the most terrifying elements of classic horror tales coming from the souls of their characters rather than things that go bump in the night. Director Lenny Abrahamson's (Room) newest film, The Little Stranger, takes this notion to heart so deeply that if often forgets that even character studies need an intriguing plot to stay afloat.
The film follows the fussy and off-putting Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson, Ex Machina), a country physician who finds himself intertwined with the equally strange Ayres family, a once noble and respected British dynasty whose lives and estate Hundreds Hall has fallen into disarray. Initially called to the home to treat Betty (Liv Betty), a house maid frightened of the manor, he slowly grows close to the few Ayres that remain: the mysterious Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years), her long-suffering daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson, Luther), and facially disfigured war veteran Roddy (Will Poulter, The Revenant). Each Ayre is haunted in some way or another: Roddy struggles to be the man of the house in the face of physical pain and PTSD, Mrs. Ayres longs for her favorite child Susan, who died young, and Caroline seems disturbed by her lack of human contact and long existence in the shadow of Susan's memory.
Faraday himself is the most fleshed out character of the tale, a man of working-class background whose envy for the posh lifestyle of the Ayres is no secret. The catch of the story is that his mother actually worked at Hundreds Hall when he was a boy, instilling in him an insatiable desire to rise out of his class and maybe himself become like this powerful, fascinating family. He feels drawn to them, despite the fact they couldn't be more different from each other. His presence sparks up a friendship, and eventually an awkward, fumbling romance with Caroline, one that Faraday obviously seems eager to exploit for his own ends. When strange events begin occurring around the house, from an accident involving a young girl to strange noises and moving objects, he plays the skeptic. He's more interested in controlling the Ayres than he is in helping them vanquish their demons.
The role is a meaty one for Gleeson, which allows him to tap in the full depths of the gawky busybody archetype he has come to master. He's suitably unlikable, a demanding and often assumptive protagonist that brings something different to the conventional approach the film takes. Gleeson captures him brilliantly, never allowing his deep jealously to boil over into caricature. The disappointment is to be found in the fact that script can't create equally nuanced roles for Wilson and Rampling, giving them very little to do outside of play period drama stereotypes and suffer at Faraday's whims. It's a shame, as the lack of any real opposition to Faraday's personality makes the film increasingly frustrating and wastes two of the finest actresses working in British film today.
This focus on the entitlement and jealously that defines Faraday is in the vein of last year's period drama and male character study Phantom Thread, clearly seeking to use the stuffiness and elegiac nature of British high society to explore the inner workings of the borderline sociopathic nature of demanding upper class men. That film is endlessly fascinating for a slew of reasons, most importantly the well-defined women surrounding Daniel Day-Lewis's lead character, its beauty, and the ingeniousness of its use of the fashion world as its backdrop. The Little Stranger may have an similar character in Faraday, but it lacks the foundation needed to justify the focus on his unsympathetic tics. It lacks strong supporting characters to offset its lead's insufferable nature, an original enough conceit to warrant its creation, or a director willing enough to take risks to truly cash in on the film's potential. Abrahamson, who rightfully received swaths of praise for 2015's kidnapping drama Room, feels like he's putting in studio man work here, never putting anything to the screen that marks any sort of unique talent.
The ghost elements, which you would think be a more prominent part of the plot, are fairly inconsequential for most of the film. They feel tacked on to the rest of the story in a misguided effort to call back to the Gothic literature that so clearly inspires the film and the novel by Sarah Waters upon which it is based. What this film is really about is the ugliness of class separation in a decaying England, which would make for an interesting film in and of itself, but the preoccupation with making this a horror sorry detract from that theme. The twist ending, which is admittedly fascinating, is an effort to right the ship in that department and have you reexamine the film in a new light. However, there's not enough meat on the bones of the rest of the film to justify its wilder final moments. It's simply not a scary film in the slightest, and a testament to the fact that horror films cannot get by on atmosphere alone.
Outside of Gleeson's fine performance, there's little to be found in the cold corners of The Little Stranger. The stranger is the film itself, always out of reach to the audience and frustratingly devoid of definition. Like Faraday himself, it's haunted by a wish to be something else entirely.