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Non-Review Review: The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger could do with being a little stranger.

Gothic horror stories about haunted houses are often about more than just the building or the estate itself. They often serve as something at once larger and smaller; a prism through which the storyteller might examine both the society around the haunted house and the family unit trapped within. This is true of most haunted house stories, no matter where or when they are set. The Amityville Horror is about much broader familial anxieties than a mere spectre.

Stranger Things…

At the same time, it feels particularly true when applied to the more traditional and old-fashioned gothic haunted house stories, the kind of tales about old family estates in the middle of nowhere, that had once served to anchor political and economic power in a particular area, but had since watched modernity pass them by. These are the sorts of creepy houses frequently glimpsed in period pieces or older stories, whether in tales set in the England of Wuthering Heights or the New England of Edgar Allan Poe.

The Little Stranger belongs to this particularly strain of haunted house horror, unfolding on a once grand estate that is slowly surrendering itself to a rapidly-changing world. It is the story of a house in decay and decline, falling apart as it struggles to find its place in a world that might slowly shed the trappings of class hierarchies and where power might no longer be anchored exclusively in those families wealthy enough to own and maintain these grand estates.

A sorry estate of affairs…

The Little Stranger works better as a mood than as a story, a slowly unravelling portrait of a household coming face-to-face with its own obsolescence, unsure both of whether it can do anything to arrest this collapse or even whether it wants to. The tale maintains a steady sense of unease across its runtime, largely down to a tremendous performance from Domhnall Gleeson as a character who remains ambiguous and unsettling even as he positions himself at the centre of the narrative.

The Little Stranger suffers from a fairly conventional and predictable plot, with little novel or insightful to say, relying on a series of revelations that are quite clear even fifteen minutes into the two-hour runtime. The Little Stranger is a little too familiar for its own good, a little too comfortable and sedate to really pack the necessary punch.

Farraday is far away.

Domhnall Gleeson has a knack for the uncanny. Gleeson is one of the most striking and distinctive leading actors of his generation. Like a lot of the male performers around his age, particularly actors like James Franco, Gleeson offers a strange blend of leading man handsomeness with character actor ambiguity. This allows Gleeson a great deal of flexibility in his roles, and makes him a very effective performer in the hands of the right director.

Indeed, a large of Gleeson’s appeal is down to the fact that the actor and his collaborators seem to fundamentally understand this appealing tension. Unlike many young male actors of his generation, Gleeson has very rarely attempted to position himself as a conventional leading man; About Time is perhaps the best example, and a large part of the movie’s tonal dissonance is down to the fact that Gleeson isn’t a particularly easy sell as an uncomplicated and unsophisticated romantic lead.

Doctor Who?

Gleeson’s best roles understand that the actor can play both a handsome figure and layer that with something more nuanced simmering beneath the surface. His rugby captain character in Brooklyn is a great example, a character who should be an irresistible romantic lead on paper and within the confines of the script’s “back home to reconnect” narrative, but who Gleeson imbues with a certain edge that unsettles and disconcerts. The character is much more complicated that the archetype that he represents.

Similarly, Gleeson’s work in Ex Machina hinges on a similar tension. Gleeson’s character is a familiar archetype, the enthusiastic and idealistic white knight who is positioned in the space normally reserved for protagonists in this sort of narrative. However, Gleeson gives the character just enough edge that the film can sharply pivot on that set-up and reveal that his character is something decidedly less comfortable and less conventional.

An anti-social social climber.

The Little Stranger marks Gleeson’s second collaboration with director Lennie Abrahamson, who used him to great effect in Frank. Again, Frank played off that compelling tension in Gleeson’s screen persona, the actor’s keen ability to suggest a more conventional archetype before developing something more subtle and more uncanny underneath it. Gleeson is very effective in these kinds of roles, playing character who maintain very careful and very convincing facades, but who hide their cracks very poorly.

The Little Stranger effectively hinges on this conflict within Gleeson’s screen persona, in the clever manner in which the actor straddles the uncanny valley. To all appearances, the character of Doctor Farraday is a fully functional human being, a professional who performs a vital role within the community, who is good enough at his job that he merits promotion and recruitment, who seems to act out of the goodness of his heart towards those caught within his orbit.

It turns out that the little stranger was the friends we made along the way.

The Little Stranger hinges on the idea that Farraday would be charming enough that he could make his way into the hallowed environment of Hundreds Hall, ingratiating himself to the once-wealthy Ayre family through small gestures of compassion and kindness towards an estate that has fallen on tough times. Gleeson portrays Farraday as a man who takes considerable care in how he presents himself, who appears sturdy and reliable enough that he might be beckoned in rather than warded off.

However, the true power of Gleeson’s performance in the speed and the manner with which the fault lines begin to appear, once the audience is allowed to properly inspect Farraday. As Doctor Farraday integrates himself into the day-to-day workings of Hundreds Hall, there is a sense that the character’s mask is slipping and there is something squirming underneath. It is an incredibly nuanced and developed performance, one that suggests considerable depth.

A class act.

Gleeson has a rare ability to communicate effectively with a minimum amount of exaggeration. As Farraday, Gleeson communicates an incredible amount through quick glances and even the rhythm of his breathing. The character is constantly guarded, and Gleeson provides the audience with enough of his measure that he remains expressive. Indeed, the best thing that can be said about Gleeson’s performance is that his extended voice-over monologues feel largely unnecessary.

The Little Stranger is a story about class and transition in Great Britain following the end of the Second World War. There is a sense that the world is rapidly changing, and that the established order is struggling to keep up. If they cannot keep pace, there is a very real fear that the Ayre family might end up as ghosts in their own story. “Times are tough,” Farraday confesses to Roderick Ayre. “Especially for estates like Hundreds Hall.” This is the end of an era, as the rigid hierarchies of traditional class structures crumble.

Painting quite the picture.

The Ayre family is repeatedly confronted with how the times are changing. A wealthy ad man attends a swanky (albeit funereal) dinner party. “You’re an accountant?” asks an elderly attendee, having obviously honed in on the “add.” The American corrects him, “Advertising.” The hosts are shocked when a young girl attends the party with her parents, confidently asserting that she is allowed to stay up until midnight and that her parents do not care to impose rules or boundaries.

The Ayre family are left behind in other ways. The postwar government has embraced socialist policies. “A death tax of forty-five percent!” Roderick laments in one of his spells. “The Labour government won’t be happy until we’re begging in the streets.” He muses that Farraday must feel the same way. “Whatever would make you think that?” Farraday counters, rejecting the idea that he might be a radical bolshevik devoted to dismantling the class hierarchy with his bear hands.

A domestic disturbance

Instead, The Little Stranger positions Farraday as a paradox. He is the product of the lower classes, but has internalised the class structure so much that he seeks to buttress and support it. He is committed to maintaining Hundreds Hall, to restoring it to its formal glory. He objects to plans to sell parts of it off to provide housing. He also doesn’t seem particularly keen on the development of the National Health Service socialising medicine. “People like to look up to their doctors,” he insists.

The Little Stranger returns time and time again to Farraday’s childhood visit to Hundreds Hall, on “Empire Day” at the end of the First World War, “when it was in its full glory.” Although he only visited once, it is explicitly stated that Farraday took something of the estate with him when he left, and it is heavily implied that he might have left something behind as well. Farraday focuses on that memory, boasting of it to various supporting characters and holding it very dear.

“Yes, I am a doctor. Why do you ask?”

There is no small irony in the fact that Farraday doesn’t really belong at Hundreds Hall. The only remaining evidence of his visit is a photograph where all but his shoulder is obscured. When the elderly Angela Ayres becomes convinced that there is a spirit haunting the estate, she makes it very clear that Farraday is still less welcome. “She belongs here,” Angela states of the poltergeist at play. She quickly adds, “You don’t.” Whatever supernatural force is at work in Hundreds Hall, Farrady haunts the estate.

The Little Stranger works best as a mood piece, as a prestige drama focusing on class anxieties and the twilight of a particular vision of Britain, with layers of a psychological thriller heaped on top. In fact, the somewhat unconventional pseudo-romance between Farraday and Caroline Ayres is much more intriguing and engaging than most cinematic period romances, ably brought to life by compelling and layered performances from both Domhnall Gleeson and Ruth Wilson.

The Sorrows of Empire Day.

However, The Little Stranger does not work as well as a genre exercise, which is frustrating given that the entirety of the movie’s plot is structured as a gothic ghost story. The Little Stranger simply isn’t scary or uncomfortable enough. It isn’t creepy. It isn’t especially unsettling. The house itself is a fascinating environment. This is particularly true the way that Abrahamson guides the camera through it and the way in which he focuses on faded reflective surfaces.

However, the tone is more solemn and mournful than eerie or uncanny. The Little Stranger often seems like it is running on nothing more than a general sense of dread and a wonderful set of performances, none of which have been marshalled towards any grander purpose. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that the film tries to commit to its ghost story beats during the third act, and none of them are especially effective. The Little Stranger feels too gentle and too generic to do what it needs to do.

“It couldn’t be maintained, of course. Too decadent for current tastes. But I love it all just the same, this enchanting old ruin.”

This problem is compounded by the fact that The Little Stranger is incredibly conventional and straightforward. The movie is structured as something of a mystery, with a series of strange and awkward events unfolding around the grounds of the estate. However, it is a mystery with a very obvious answer, to the point that a lot of the film’s second half feels like it draws out any explanation for events well past any reasonable amount of time.

More than that, the film never commits to that third act revelation in a way that would be interesting or compelling. There is a more gonzo and less constrained version of The Little Stranger that accepts its mystery is very simple, and instead relishes the pulpy allegorical trappings of the pseudo-psychological horror story that it is crafting. Instead, perhaps like Farraday himself, The Little Stranger feels a little bit too refined and too polished for its own good.

Hallowed Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger could do to be a little stranger.

2 Responses

  1. Awesome review!

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