Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) has wanted to be an aristocrat in 1919, when this devoted country physician was a commonplace village boy, he became smitten with the mansion known as Hundreds Hall, home to the upper-crust Ayers family.
Every child, at some point or other, desperately wants something they don’t have. Now, in the years just after WWII, the adult Faraday has a chance to realize his youthful ambitions when the remaining Ayers clan, well on the decline, enlist his services at their run-down estate, which has a metaphorical, and perhaps a literal, spectral pull on the inhabitants.
Whether an actual wraith is in attendance is never fully clear. Even less evident are the reasons director Lenny Abrahamson decided to take on this nebulous ghost story, adapted from a 2009 novel by British novelist Sarah Waters, as the followup to his Academy Award-winning feature Room (2015).
You can see a sketchy affinity: Both movies are concerned with haunted spaces, the backyard shed imprisoning a mother and son in Room expanded here into a full-on gothic manor out of Jane Eyre or Rebecca.
And Abrahamson has certainly put the right kinds of performers within these decaying walls, from Will Poulter as the battle-scarred, shellshocked man of the house to Charlotte Rampling as the forbidding matriarch, masking the pain she feels over the death, years before, of her young daughter with the steely resolve that is this great actress’ specialty.
The majority of The Little Stranger, however, isn’t concerned with supernatural goings-on as much as it is Dr. Faraday’s subtle attempts to insinuate himself into the everyday existence, such as it is, of the Ayers clan.
A man of science through and through, Faraday continually denies unearthly explanations, even after a young visitor to the mansion is seemingly mauled by a poltergeist and insanity or suicidal tendencies infect the Ayers family members like demonic poison.
There’s enough about the good doctor that’s already not of this world, with his rigid posture, monstrously contemptuous stare, and a stiff-upper-lip that has a stiff-upper-lip all its own in the form of a mustache trimmed to too-eerie perfection.
From his humble origins, Faraday has remade himself into a grotesque parody of a blue-blood, his primary target, beside the cursed homestead, being the family’s only remaining daughter, Caroline (Ruth Wilson), whom he romances and eventually proposes to, with expectedly tragic results.
Gleeson plays the role with the kind of full-bore commitment (every supercilious gesture precise and intelligently thought through) that makes you wish the movie better complemented his efforts.
Despite the dusty-cum-misty ambience courtesy cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland and some staccato-rhythmed editing by Nathan Nugent that slightly ups the creep factor, it’s clear that Abrahamson has little interest in the genre trappings of The Little Stranger.
He’d rather race through the spine chilling moments or throw a haughty sneer in their direction so that he can get to the metaphor at the story’s heart, namely that the “ghost” is class resentment that has been allowed to fester in a man who, despite his hippocratic oath, long ago ceded the health of humanity to his own upward mobility.
If that makes it sound like meaning constantly takes precedence over method here, it’d be a spot-on diagnosis. And like flesh without a skeleton to support it, the film ultimately collapses in a hollowed-out heap.>