Lenny Abrahamson’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Room” is another story about a woman in an unescapable situation, trapped in a confining and ominous locale, and preyed upon by a scheming, creepy man. But whereas “Room” was a harrowing drama about modern kidnapping, “The Little Stranger” is a gloomy ghost story about social upheaval in early-20th-century England. And it’s not a particularly good one.
“The Little Stranger” stars Domhnall Gleason as Dr. Faraday, a gaunt stalk of a man, with bleached complexion and dead little eyes. He works in a small town near an estate called Hundred Hall, where the once-wealthy, now financially decaying Ayres family resides. It was once a handsome building with glorious grounds, but it now looks like it’s only a decade or so away from devolving into Grey Gardens.
Dr. Faraday is called to Hundreds Hall to attend to a sick housemaid, and he meets what remains of the Ayres family: Roddy (Will Poulter, “Detroit”) was grievously scarred in the war, and walks with a painful, labored gait. His sister, Caroline (Ruth Wilson, “The Affair”), is a great beauty who can no longer afford to look beautiful, who has sacrificed her own future to care for her ailing brother. Their mother, Angela (Charlotte Rampling), resides over them all, and reminds them of finer, more affluent times.
As circumstances get harder for the Ayres family, Dr. Faraday finds himself at Hundreds Hall more and more often. Treating the sick, committing the insane, and spending more and more moments alone with Caroline. Before long it seems as though he practically lives there, which may or may not have been part of his plan all along.
By all rights, “The Little Stranger” should be Caroline’s story. She’s trapped in an eerie, dilapidated mansion, having sacrificed so very much of herself, with nowhere to go due to familial obligations and social limitations. It’s her fears that we sympathize with, her victimization that we worry about, and her victory if she ever escapes Hundreds Hall. Wilson towers in this kind of performance, and the film’s storyline seems to support her struggle at every turn.
So it’s telling that, instead, this little tale of wickedness is told by Dr. Faraday, who as a young child idolized the Ayres and their enchanting home, and now will do seemingly anything to worm his way into that household. It’s a horror story told from the perspective of the villain, but he’s either unwilling to admit that he’s the villain or the movie simply doesn’t want us to know for certain. Either way, it’s a distancing approach to the story, especially since Gleeson gives such a neutral, measured, cadaverous performance that there’s no reason to ever suspect he has anything inside him that isn’t sociopathic.
The emptiness of Dr. Faraday seems to mirror the emptiness of Hundreds Hall, but The Hundreds is actually filled with captivating characters. The dowager with life left in her, the young woman whose life never began, and the well-intentioned soldier whose life has been obliterated. It’s almost subversive that the working-class Dr. Faraday is so painfully drab compared with the aristocrats, and even odder still that he’s the center of the story when he has the least to offer in terms of passion or intrigue.
Abrahamson seems fascinated with the idea of gothic storytelling, but he hasn’t quite got the knack of it. His hallways are vast and eerie, and his characters are brooding and imprisoned, but neither his production design nor his cast are permitted to show more than the briefest flickers of life. The story isn’t bursting out of the seams of “The Little Stranger”; it practically refuses to come out at all. Abrahamson is keeping his movie prisoner, and he never even lets it exercise, let alone escape.
“The Little Stranger” has all the disquieting atmosphere of a total void, and like a total void, not a lot happens in it. You might get sucked into the cold, but you’ll grow bored quickly. The film fails to distract you from its very straightforward mysteries, so you’ll have you plenty of time to solve them in the first act. Waiting for the movie to catch up is a little infuriating, because it’s not quite strange enough to surprise you along the way.