The Little Stranger is a beautifully made film adapted from a celebrated novel and directed by a ‘name’ director. It has four well-known star actors playing the leads and I liked it very much. It is also slow and in some ways sombre and its presentation from the distributors (Pathé/Fox in the UK) risks alienating its audience. Certainly that appears to have been the case in the US where it died in its second week, generating only $210 per screen from 477 screens. Its first weekend in the UK was poor but not disastrous, with a screen average of just over £1,000 from 297 screens giving it 13th place in the weekly chart. I suspect the film will skew older and therefore mid-week box office might be better.
The problem is that some audiences might be expecting a ghost story/horror film/haunted house picture when in fact it is a gothic melodrama set very carefully in 1948. Some IMDb comments suggest that for some US audiences the narrative will be bewildering but for older and more aware UK audiences, it should resonate.
Outline (NO SPOILERS!)
The film is adapted from the 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, her third to be Booker Prize nominated. She followed the 2006 The Night Watch, set in wartime 1940s London with a story set in 1948 during the period of the 1945-50 Labour government which transformed the UK. She claimed that this was a novel about a socialist Britain undergoing change.
Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is a GP (General Practitioner) in rural Warwickshire, a 37 year-old bachelor somewhat reluctant to embrace the National Health Service which is slowly being introduced. One day he is summoned to ‘Hundreds Hall’, the local stately home now beginning to decay as inheritance tax bites into the upper middle-classes’ wealth. He’s been there once before as an 8-year-old boy in 1919 when the hall was still in its Imperial pomp putting on a show for the local villagers, but now he finds the young heir Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter) to be a disabled RAF veteran, supported by his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and his mother (Charlotte Rampling). Faraday has been called to see young Betty, the only servant left. Betty is frightened and miserable rather than sick and there is a suggestion that there is something in the great house which is not quite right. Faraday finds himself curiously drawn into the world of the Ayres, first treating Roderick’s condition and then becoming more deeply involved in the family’s affairs. It will be some time before Faraday becomes fully aware of the symptoms and the extent of the family’s decline. How he reacts to events and what he attempts to do (or not do) forms the basis of the narrative.
As directed by Lenny Abrahamson from a script by Lucinda Coxon, The Little Stranger is a slow-burning gothic tale well-served by Ole Bratt Birkeland’s cinematography and music by Abrahamson’s long-time collaborator Stephen Rennicks. Production design, art direction, costume, sound design, location scouting etc. are all top-notch. The key is restraint – and repression. Gleeson seems to me to be both perfect for the role, but also in one sense ‘wrong’ somehow. (He’s actually a year younger than Ruth Wilson, but his character is meant to be ten years older than hers – I suppose that means she is also wrong for the role, but I don’t think it’s important). More important is Gleeson’s very severe appearance as Faraday and his carefully researched accent – which gives his narration a restrained rationality. We don’t get a first name for Faraday (named for the scientist?). The use of the surname puts the doctor in his place in terms of social class. The upper classes always used surnames in social situations, especially the men, following public school practice. Faraday addresses his patient as ‘Roderick’ or ‘Rod’ but if they were social acquaintances he would have called him ‘Ayres’.
The Little Stranger is all about social class. In some ways, Faraday is a working-class Tory. This has been a fairly common tradition in the UK in rural areas, especially in the families of servants (Faraday’s mother was a maid at the ‘big house’). But Faraday is made more complex by specific lines of dialogue in which he reveals some contradictory views about the Labour government’s policies. The real discourse about class focuses on the house which is crumbling physically and metaphorically as a symbol of the decline of the Ayres and their ilk. Most commentators have referred to Abrahamson’s last film Room because it featured in the 2017 Oscars, but I was reminded of What Richard Did (Ireland 2012) which also featured social class in quite subtle ways and was for me a more interesting film than Room.
Sarah Waters says of her initial research for the novel that she watched the films of the period, read popular novels and looked for the ‘voices’ of ordinary people. She kept in mind novels by the likes of Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca 1941 by Hitchcock), Dickens, Wilkie Collins etc. Thinking about it now, I wonder if she watched I Walked With a Zombie (1943) the Val Lewton-Jacques Tourneur film loosely based on Jane Eyre that has some elements in common with The Little Stranger, including the ambiguity of events. Are they supernatural or the result of some kind of psychological disturbance? There are several shots of staircases that suggest a Hitchcockian narrative.
What is fascinating and satisfying about Waters’ complex narrative that is well-served here is that it has so many layers and narrative possibilities. The set-up offers us a potential romance between Faraday and Caroline and there is a key scene at a dance which I won’t spoil, except to point out that this is the only one of Waters’ narratives not to include a lesbian relationship. All we know about Caroline is that she was involved in the war effort but came back to the hall to help care for her brother. Many younger people during the war were politicised by the experience of ‘social mixing’ and in some ways Caroline is to the left of Faraday. As for Faraday himself , we also know only a little of his history. His parents struggled to give him an education and after qualifying as a doctor he spent the war years working in a military hospital. He has the chance to work in London but he seems obsessed with staying in the village. If this was a film made in the 1940s the central character might have been played by David Farrar or James Mason, both actors with very different personae to that of Domhnall Gleeson. I’m racking my brain to think of a 1940s cinema equivalent of the Faraday character and the actor who might play him. Trevor Howard seems a bit to smooth/posh.
Who or what is ‘The Little Stranger’? The people around me in the cinema seem to have made up their minds, but I think it is an open question. I’ll have to back to the novel, since I’ve forgotten Sarah Waters’ original ending. Perhaps I don’t want an ending anyway? The metaphor of the crumbling mansion, the new homes being built in the grounds by the local council and so on are fine for me. I note a couple of American reviews who see this as about ‘Britain in decline’. For me, 1948 signals the re-birth of Britain as a more equal society. Unfortunately the new world was not to last, but sweeping away the old to make room for the new is to be celebrated isn’t it? Perhaps ‘The Little Stranger’ is the infant welfare state?
Here’s the official UK trailer (with a few more spoilers than presented in the text above):