Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling
Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes
MPAA rating: R
by Sandy DeVito, Witchqueen of Darkness
First of all let me say, it’s truly great to see gothic films making a comeback. I’ve long been a fan of gothic narrative above all others, but rarely have I been looking forward to such a slew of films that could fit into the gothic framework (as far as the gothic films that have been made so far go, I made a list that you should check out, and as you can see, compared with other genres, even other horror genres, it’s not as long as purveyors would hope, though it’s filled with gems). The Little Stranger is one of several that remain for the end of 2018, and the mere idea that I have more than one gothic film a year to look forward to is a new experience. As our society turns ever toward chaos, so do our minds need the refuge of gothica, which stares at the chaos with a loving eye; something we must be able to do in order to survive.
Another aspect of the new gothica is a recognition of its many different incarnations. Director Lenny Abrahamson (Room) utilizes the writing of two women (author Sarah Waters and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon) to form a film with a singular eye for the melancholic nature innate to this form of storytelling; even what seems to be ordinary is in fact distorted and alien, and that which is not obviously supernatural still rings of esoterica. Domhnall Gleeson has been building a career on genre and character-based films, and he’s perfectly cast here as Doctor Farraday, a somewhat hapless and yet seemingly good-natured country doctor, drawn to Hundreds Hall since his humble beginnings as the son of ones of its maids, and likewise drawn to the lonely daughter of the Ayres family, Caroline, played by Ruth Wilson (who I have been totally in love with since I saw her in Oz Perkins’ achingly eldritch I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House). I was lucky enough to avoid both the trailers and any spoilers for this film before I sat down to watch it, interested from a plot synopsis alone, so I will spare anymore detail about the innerworkings of the plot. Thinking back on it, I’m so glad I got to experience this film totally unknowing of its story. To see it unfold itself like the inside of a clockwork toy was a special joy for me. At first, I balked at the use of a male narrator in a story of this nature; gothic narrative is, in the strictest sense, best suited to utilize the female protagonist, but as the film wore on, I saw the clever structure of his purpose. The unreliable narrator is one of the most magnificent subversions of fiction, taking away our certainty in the clarity and realism of the tale we are imbibing. With objectivity snatched away, we can truly begin to feel the cold hand of the gothic; the rumbling of the unknown, even in the corners of seeming monotony.
Waters, who wrote the original novel, expounded on her intentions: ”I didn't set out to write a haunted house novel. I wanted to write about what happened to class in that post-war setting. It was a time of turmoil in exciting ways. Working class people had come out of the war with higher expectations. They had voted in the Labour government. They want change....So it was a culture in a state of change. But obviously for some people it was a change for the worse.” What began as a meditation on class and the decay of old wealth in England, however, became far more menacing when tinged with a giant, ghostly manor. And Abrahamson’s film utilizes both aspects to their best use. DP Ole Bratt Birkeland (American Animals, Ghost Stories) uses long, wide, stagnant shots of Hundreds Hall’s dilapidation and empty space (in fact this too reminded me of Perkins’ film), causing a wonderful involuntary chill down my spine, an aching sense of loss and foreboding dread, of abandonment and time frozen in the fist of disuse. What is Hundreds hiding? Are there truly supernatural aspects to this story, or is it all in the head of our confusing narrator? In the vein of Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Cousin Rachel, this narrative wants us to sit in our confusion, forcing us to reach into the subjectivity we often try to avoid when it comes to a moral quandary. Has Farraday’s longing to be part of the Ayre family, the opulence of an old, dying world, altered the course of his life toward some dastardly final act? Roderick (Will Poulter) claims to feel an evil presence in the house; the dog; the strange memories Farraday has of his childhood day at the Hall, the dead child Susan, and what seems to be a hanging cloud of ill luck over the lives of the Ayres makes one question the reality of what is happening. There is no real knowing in life; we can theorize and hypothesize endlessly on the meaning of Things, but all too often those supposed meanings slip through our fingers like so much sand.
This is delicate, subversive high gothic storytelling, refusing to rely on overt supernaturalism, instead content to creep between the cracks of our subconscious selves. What makes good people do bad things? What happens to an innocent soul when its body dies? How are we to live when at every turn we come up against oppression and degradation, hopelessness and decay? How can we even trust ourselves to know what is truly real and what is not? I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this film since I saw it, and like all the best gothic work, I suspect it will linger with me for far, far longer. Things are not as simple as we would like them to be. And they are ever more obtuse. I loved this film.