Opening Friday is one of the best movies of the year. Yet you may not have heard a word about it. The Little Stranger boasts notable stars like Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, and Charlotte Rampling. It is celebrated director Lenny Abrahamson’s follow-up to the Academy Award-winning Room. Yet this Focus Features release has barely made a blip, skipping festivals that might have earned it buzz, and being dumped discreetly at the end of summer with a review embargo lifting just one day ahead of its release. Altogether, these should be ominous signs that suggest Abrahamson has made a regrettable blunder best suited to a humble burial. But again, I tell you: The Little Stranger is one of the best films of the year. The trouble is that it’s a tricky film to sell or even discuss without spoilers. But let’s try.
Based on Sarah Waters’ 1940s-set novel, The Little Stranger is a genre-blend, containing elements of gothic romance, haunted house horror, and psychological thriller to unfurl a drama that’s pensive, sophisticated, and disturbing, with a surprisingly modern twist. The story centers on the mysterious terror that befalls the Ayres, a family of dwindling fortunes that left their last three members shuffling about the decaying manor of Hundreds Hall, as they scrape for coins and any way out. When a dapper young doctor called Faraday (Gleeson) comes by on a house call, it seems he could be their white knight. His gentleness soothes their spooked maid (Liv Hill). His ingenuity heals a burdensome war wound of Rod, the house’s scarred and dour heir (Will Poulter). And Faraday’s interest in Rod’s sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) might save this clever but past-bloom maiden from spinsterhood. But what can he do about the pernicious poltergeist that plagues the Ayres’ home?
The trailers for the film play up its horror set pieces. But those seeking pulse-pounding frights should be warned these are few, far between, restrained in gore, and devoid of jump scares. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
Abrahamson is not dabbling in standard terror tropes, but instead builds an unsettling tension and an enveloping sense of dread. Through voiceover, Faraday leads us through the alleged paranormal activity that Hundreds Hall. Ever the man of science, he’s quick with excuses and dismissals. But chilling visuals unveil secrets our narrator ignores. As foreboding rumbles barrel through the house and the spirit turns to mounting violence, the audience and Faraday are challenged to make sense of its origins before it’s too late. Watch closely, and the final shot might confirm your worst fears.
The script by Lucinda Coxon is crafty and elegant, dropping clues in plain sight that you might only notice upon reflection or rewatching. Fitting for a tale of high-society Brits, there are layers of shady subtext underneath seemingly polite conversations. Red flags might be overlooked amid the decadent set design of the sprawling, gorgeous, yet rotting Hundreds Hall. Like Lifechanger or Colossal, The Little Stranger plays with genre to spin a tale that is mind-bending, challenging, and slyly political.
Bolstering every bit is a stellar cast. As the steely matriarch Mrs. Ayres, Rampling delivers side-eye as sharply as a classist put-down. Poulter, who played an over-the-top doof in the R-rated comedy We’re The Millers, is transformed by scarring prosthetics, a limp, and gruff grumble, bringing heavy pain with every weary sigh. With wide eyes and the occasional burst of a broad smile, Hill’s dulcet maid expresses the uninhibited emotions all others in the house are too posh to dare. Gleeson is pitch-perfect as The Little Stranger’s stiff yet enchanting leading man. But its Wilson who steals the show, creating a portrait of a woman whose grown rough around the edges from years of seclusion and tragedy, yet still yearns passionately for girlish dreams of love. While Faraday is the protagonist, it’s the radiance of Wilson’s resilient heiress that snags at our hopes. And The Little Stranger knows it.
I realize this review may be vexing. I’m speaking around so much, while essentially saying, “I can’t tell you exactly why this is great. Just trust me.” But do trust me. The Little Stranger is a horror movie that dares to deal in restraint, dabbles in gothic romances, and plunges into the cerebral and political. Its story unfurls thoughtfully, giving us characters fragile with yearning and fear, and swooning moods of doom with spurts of hope. It’s a period piece with a message that speaks very much to right now. And above all else, it’s a movie that deserves to be seen, and on its own terms. So I beg you, seek it out. And don’t seek out spoilers.