On atmospheric voids, subconscious desires and The Little Stranger's nebulous uninvited guest
The Little Stranger Focus Features
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Screenplay: Lucinda Coxon, based on the novel by Sarah Waters
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling and Liv Hill
Rated R / 1 hour, 51 minutes / 1.85:1
(out of four)
This may or may not be a backhanded compliment, but it's the absence of a perceptible atmosphere in The Little Stranger that may be its salvation. The movie is predicated on the curious psychological hold its central location has had on its protagonist for the better portion of his life, dating back to childhood. And it's his adult entrance to that place - a once-hallowed, now-dilapidated country estate that his lower working-class roots trained him long ago to humbly venerate - that ignites an utterly nebulous sequence of presumptively spectral, or otherwise impossible to explain, events.
Movies like this tend to be pregnant with foreboding atmosphere. There's a certain way they hover. A certain way the mood bleeds into physical matter.
But there is no such hover in The Little Stranger. By the time it ends it's difficult to tell not only what's meant to be hanging in the air, but whether we're meant to be feeling anything hanging in the air in the first place. The ambiguous force that has taken up residence over the course of the story is presented as barely comprehensible and perhaps nonexistent even to the man at the center of it all, who essentially propels all of the film's events and serves as our eyes and ears ... and nose and throat. This is a doctor joke, on account of this character being a doctor. His name is Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) and he's called to Hundreds Hall one day to have a look at a maid, Betty (Liv Hill), who's under the weather. The checkup is innocuous enough, but in the coming months Faraday proceeds to make himself at home at Hundreds Hall - ingratiating himself with the family matriarch, Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling, obviously); providing treatment to the severe war wounds suffered by the current owner of the estate, Roderick (Will Poulter); befriending (and eventually trying to marry) Roderick's sister, Caroline (Ruth Wilson).
However accidental Faraday's sudden ubiquity in Hundreds Hall - and sudden importance to what's left of the Ayres family - may or may not have been, his presence coincides with a number of strange, occasionally violent occurrences in and around the estate. He observes and narrates with a sort of detached confusion, as if dissecting some half-buried, long-forgotten mystery from the past.
The whole film, for that matter, is shaded by the memories of a bygone era. The aftermath of World War II finds Hundreds Hall - not too long ago a local epicenter of wealth, prosperity and revelry - practically in ruins. Faraday's impression of the place is tied up with his childhood memories of it, an idealization that has stuck in his consciousness ever since. His mother was once employed as a maid there, and so he spent his fair share of time on or near its grounds. He formed something of an obsession with it, back then - even, in one instance the adult Faraday remembers through a distinctly hazy explanation, snapping off a decorative piece of one of its walls, as if just to keep a small piece of this magical place for himself. Now he finds himself - a stoic adult with a respectable career - lured back to the place that has so powerfully stuck in his imagination. Only now that he's here, in this idealized place, he can't quite put a finger on the inexplicable mood that seems to have accompanied him.
While the voiceover does serve an expository function to some degree, it's also crucial to the way the film must be experienced - specifically, through the amorphous muddle of Faraday's perception, stridently logical (to a fault), completely oblivious to the intrusive effect of his own presence, and completely at a loss to diagnose the sickness afflicting this beloved estate of his, much less how to cure it. Try as he might.
People keep saying there's a spirit haunting this place. Or a curse. This could explain the servant's bells that keep going off in the basement without anyone ringing them. Or the warnings scratched in the walls that our humble country doctor insists are left over from years earlier - childhood scratchings that simply went overlooked. But something isn't right.
That Faraday can't feel the oppressive force supposedly haunting these hallowed rooms and hallways - and that we are experiencing this ambivalence through and with him - is paramount. Or at least I think it is. At the moment. I could turn that around into an indictment on the film, too. This could just be a not-very-good ghost story. In one way or another, The Little Stranger is about an uninvited guest, and I think the spiritual aloofness is baked-in. The atmospheric equivalent of negative space. If I'm correct, then this is certainly more daring than I would have expected from director Lenny Abrahamson after Room, a film premised on its singularly disoriented point-of-view but which Abrahamson chose to present with no point-of-view whatsoever. If I'm reading Stranger right, he gets into his protagonist's head far better than he did for Room (which is to say, at all).
"Nothing could prepare me for the spell it cast," Faraday narrates at one point, recalling his youthful reaction to Hundreds Hall. Yet as an adult, he can't seem to get on its wavelength at all - even as he cannot, or will not, stay away. For a film about invisible yet impenetrable barriers - explored primarily through the prism of class mobility in postwar England - his inability to comprehend what has happened to this place, even as he gets closer and closer to possessing it, feels like the appropriate mode of consciousness. Faraday is fastidious in his observations, sober in his emotions, rational in his interpretations. And yet he is utterly adrift. Often we underestimate the subconscious power of our own desires.