A large, dilapidated house on the hill, a once regal family now fallen out of grace and into despair, and secret pasts that haunt the poorly lit halls — these are just some of the Gothic fiction staples gloriously reproduced in Lenny Abrahamson’s new film “The Little Stranger.”
But despite the loving homage to this aesthetic, the film comes across as a case of style rather than substance.
Faraday is a doctor in 1940s England whose obsession with the Ayres family and their mansion begins to entangle his life. After being called to examine their young maid, Faraday becomes better acquainted with the fallen family and their decaying home. They fear the house is haunted by a spirit, too.
From a purely aesthetic perspective, “The Little Stranger” is delightfully Gothic. The mansion is always creaking and crumbling, the color palette is muted and the general atmosphere is cold and callous. It’s enjoyable to see Abrahamson go from uniquely shooting a single room in the aptly titled “Room” to capturing the unnerving and isolating largeness of the regal home.
The actors excel at playing variations on dry, proper British society. Domhnall Gleeson expresses a lot with his visage, despite his normally static body. On the other hand, Ruth Wilson as Caroline Ayers is disingenuously lively, hiding her empty life.
While I wouldn’t classify “The Little Stranger” as a horror film, there are some horrific moments that leave an impact. These scenes vary from uncomfortable and creepy to violent, and serve as the film’s most memorable sequences.
In fact, they are the only memorable parts of the film. Despite clear passion in the design and presentation of the film, there is a jarring lack of interest within the narrative. Many scenes drag on as characters quietly discuss their failed lives or subtly examine rooms and noises. The horror scenes are memorable because they manage to wake your senses when nothing else will.
That isn’t to say there is no intrigue, as the mystery of the house and nature of Faraday’s obsession were enough to keep me invested at first. Yet, the slow burn pacing kills any momentum these mysteries have, and equally burned away my attention.
The film explores mainstays of the Gothic genre, like fear of changing times, controlling romances and possible hauntings which personify the traumas haunting the main characters. But there is also a clear theme of the dangers of nostalgia and how it can cloud the present.
As a character, Faraday is obsessive and his reserved nature hides inward turmoil and jealousy. I still found it difficult to care about his connection to the family, being the titular “Little Stranger.”
Despite my lack of interest while viewing the film, I want to see it again to find new clues that might better unravel the mysteries within. I’m not sure it’s completely worth seeing in theaters; it might be better to watch at home where one can truly soak in the ominous mood.
The themes of abusing nostalgia and the haunting nature of the past are interesting at times, and I believe in better hands this could have been a more engaging look into those ideas. “The Little Stranger” ends up being unremarkable, beyond showcasing the production designer’s talent.
Sam Goodrich, Staff Writer