Trailer upon trailer showed a side of director Lenny Abrahamson‘s The Little Stranger that really didn’t come to light in the final cut of the movie. Marketing made this film adaptation of Sarah Waters‘ novel seem like a horror/thriller.
However, The Little Stranger doesn’t care about expectations. It is far from a horror/thriller. Rather, this is more of a mystery tale. There aren’t creepy ghosts or paranormal activity — there’s just actor Domhnall Gleeson giving us a measured approach to the ominous character of Dr. Faraday and the mystery surrounding a mansion and its family.
As an assistant to a doctor I believe was on vacation (or just simply “out of the office”), Dr. Faraday took plenty of house calls. One in particular interested the good doctor, however, and it dealt with a sick girl/maid at the Ayres estate. This home has plenty of history for Faraday who, as a child, was involved in events hosted by Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling). Faraday then takes on the task of trying to heal the war-torn veteran Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter).
Slowly but surely, Dr. Faraday becomes attached yet again to the home that once brought him much joy, then plenty of jealousy.
Without spoiling anything, it’s safe to say that nothing good happens in the Ayres household. There’s a particular scene with a dog and a young girl, and it was horrifying. In between the slow storytelling, there are moments of shock that tricked me into believing Abrahamson’s story was trending toward the horror genre after all. But that’s simply not the case: this is a slow burn, where we get Gleeson in a layered role. I enjoyed seeing the 35-year-old Irishman seamlessly transition between being a cautious doctor to a confident man who’s prideful to a fault.
I was buying into Rampling’s performance, as well, whose character took a hard stance on raising her children. Clearly, she cared, but she also was a little too tough. The subtle eye shifts and hardened heart bled through the screen, which helped engage me in the moments without a score and almost complete silence. I could feel the intensity of the room.
I was a big fan of the costume design by Steven Noble, who really helped the film’s authentic 1948 look come to life. From the nights out on the town to the garb worn inside the Ayres mansion, I was so impressed. There are moments of awe with the natural lighting and cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland, who recently did work on American Animals.
While this slow-burn approach to storytelling works in some regards, I just thought the payoff wasn’t worth the wait. When the story beings reaching its climax, I’m already a bit fatigued at how long we’ve had to wait for at least something to unravel. The movie drops bread crumbs, but once the film begins kicking it into drive, I fell out of love with playing detective.
Abrahamson directed Room, which I found to be a better representation of how he can handle direction of a story. See, here, with Little Stranger, the crux of the story happened far too late. Sure, I understand not everything needed to be plain as day and it took some thinking, but I’d be lying if I told you I got up from my seat with a smile. Rather, it was a departure that left me with disappointment.
The first half of the movie propped up actor Will Poulter’s character, and honestly the film suffered with his overdone fits of rage and poor makeup on his face that distracted from any words coming out of his mouth. I’ve seen Poulter in better roles that provide him more room to work. In this film, I just shrug at the memory of his performance.
There’s enough doubt in my mind that not even the studio knew what to do with this movie (misguided trailers, late embargo date, barely any marketing, etc.).
Unfortunately for Gleeson, The Little Stranger won’t be a film that hits hard in theaters, but not only because of its weird roll-out — but because it just isn’t something that’s worth the wait.
I attended a screening of The Little Stranger for purposes of this review, thanks to Focus Features and Allied Integrated Marketing.
The Little Stranger is rated R, runs 1 hour and 51 minutes and hits theaters Aug. 31.