Following on from the success of his 2015 adaptation of the sordid and subversive thriller Room, Lenny Abrahamson is back mining the Man Booker nominee list again with The Little Stranger, based upon Sarah Waters’ novel of the same name. This time, Abrahamson explores themes of social mobility, class envy and thwarted romance couched in the time-honoured trope of the haunted house ghost story.
The plot sees comparatively young but positively old-fashioned country doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) revisit the crumbling mansion where his mother once worked as a housemaid. Its inhabitants, like the building itself, appear to be falling apart at the seams; the nominal man of the house Roderick (Will Poulter) is still physically and mentally scarred by his time in the war, while his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) is forced to do most of the estate’s heavy lifting herself. Meanwhile, their aging mother (Charlotte Rampling) refuses to let go of past glories and lost loves, including a daughter who died from illness just days after Faraday visited the house in his youth as an awestruck commoner.
It’s evident from the initial call-out that Faraday still harbours painful memories of his sense of inadequacy from that time, and even though he desperately desires to have clambered up the slippery pole of social status, such an ascent appears to be eternally beyond him. That desire manifests itself in a weird dynamic with the family as Faraday makes himself increasingly indispensable to them, even moving into an awkward romance with Caroline. Frustrated both sexually and socially, Faraday cuts an ever-more isolated figure, in spite of his best attempts to connect. All the while, strange goings-on in the house threaten to corrupt the mental faculties of its household and even compromise the building’s very foundations.
The film may be marketed as a good old-fashioned ghost story, and the presence of a malignant poltergeist is more than hinted at throughout, but any supernatural spirit is always playing second fiddle to ghosts of another kind here: those of a resentful childhood and an unfulfilled adulthood. The pervasive sense of foreboding may unsettle, but there are too few genuine scares to call this a horror. Rather, it’s a poignant examination of the pain of isolation and envy, an unrequited love letter to a time that has passed by and perhaps never fully was in the first place.