“The Little Stranger” is a quiet, stately Gothic ghost story, an exquisitely observed British period piece built upon understated, reserved and stoic performances by Domhnall Gleeson and the formidable Ruth Wilson.
What is isn’t, despite a mood as chilling as an overdue English spring, is particularly frightening. Lenny Abrahamson, the director of “Room” and “Frank,” has conjured up everything but the tingles with this cerebral and slow story of a Great House, its Great Tragedy and the psychic repercussions that reverberate there decades later.
Gleeson is Dr. Faraday, our narrator, a self-described “ageing bachelor” who has returned to the Warwickshire community where he grew up, to a small town/small-time practice after the horrors and hustle of “The War.”
It’s the late 1940s, and a house call summons him to Hundreds Hall, a fabled estate that sat heavy upon his youth. Decades before, he was but “a common village boy.” His mother was a servant there, and it was her efforts that got him through medical school (Birmingham, not “Ox-bridge”). Now he has the posh accent and reserved manner of the class which he waits upon, the trusted healer and man-of-science dealing with the Ayres family, which has at long last lost its privilege due to death, progressive taxation and entropy.
Roderick (Will Poulton of “The Revenant”) is a badly burned RAF pilot and heir, charged with saving the estate. Caroline (the always earthy Wilson) is his hard-working, common- sensible sister. Charlotte Rampling is the regal matriarch, presiding over a slow descent into ruin and oblivion.
Because there’s something not quite right with this Hall, and the doctor — showing up to treat this or that, showing up to smile at Caroline and showing up just to revel in the glories that he remembers from long ago — is a necessary sounding board to them all.
“That house HATES me” Rod insists. The noises, the accidents, the queer occurences, they’re getting to him.
Dr. Faraday’s there to say, patiently but firmly, “It can all be explained!”
And even though, as Caroline admits, “We’ve lost the trick of ‘company,'” Faraday finds himself almost welcome in their world. They can gripe about Labor tax policies, selling off land to “the rabble” and let their leaky, creaky house shame them in front of Faraday. Because he’s one of them…almost. Until push comes to shove.
A child died there decades before, and that might explain what’s happening, not that Faraday swallows that. The family and their last servant (Liv Hill) may accept the haunting as a fact of life, but not Faraday. He’s too busy sharing his memories of the place with them, batting his eyes at Plain Jane Caroline.
Abrahamson, working from a Lucinda Coxon script based on the Sarah Waters novel, loses himself in the whole Merchant-Ivory/Jane Austen features that might have better been observed on the fringes. Vast, empty, echoing rooms, drooping drapes and peeling plaster, land that is uncleared, held as a “park” which might have to be sold to make way for Britain’s post-war Baby Boom, the routine of a small-town medical practice at mid-century, a formal dance that goes on pointlessly, all decorate the story but distract us from the needed suspense, growing horror and genuine human reactions to facing the supernatural.
When a dinner party goes terribly wrong, even the blood-spattered shock of that is underplayed to the point of “Wake up, you lot.”
Wilson, as always, brings an unacknowledged soulful pain to her characterization — sensual as always (TV’s “The Affair” is her best-known role), but here with a bittersweet sting — sensuality withering away in solitude.
Gleeson, even in close-ups, rarely lets us see past the Good Doctor’s reserve, a not-quite-chilly bedside manner, just an MD keeping calm and carrying on.
There are two or three scenes that lift this above the still-life Abrahamson almost gives in to creating include a moment of romantic surrender and a tender, last-look-at-life through-living-eyes unblinkingly filmed as the family dog is put down.
It’s as if the whole enterprise — with moments, scenery and merit enough to be worth one’s while, but just barely — is, like Faraday himself, recalling that first time as a child he visited Hundreds Hall, “overwhelmed with admiration.”
MPAA Rating:R for some disturbing bloody images
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson. Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter
Credits:Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, script by Lucinda Coxon, based on the Sarah Waters novel. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 1:50