The Little Stranger: A slowly told, ghostly mash-up of Downton Abbey and Grey Gardens

By Jim Slotek

Rating: B-minus

A kind of gothic, ghostly mash-up of Downton Abbey and Grey Gardens, The Little Stranger is as mannered, tattered and morose as that marriage of premises suggests.

It also harkens back to a very British style of slow-burning psychological thriller that can come off as “glacial” to today’s attention spans. This dusty haunted-house tale of obsession and class jealousy in the decaying British Empire post-WWII (based on a 2009 novel by Sarah Waters) is an odd addition to the uncategorizable oeuvre of Irish director Lenny Abrahamson (whose previous films include Room and the dryly acerbic art-rock spoof Frank).

It has rewards, however, for anyone willing to dial it back and let the story tell itself (and accept ambiguities, up to and including the ending).

Domhnall Gleeson is trying to marry upward with Caroline (Ruth Wilson) in The Little Stranger

Domhnall Gleeson is trying to marry upward with Caroline (Ruth Wilson) in The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger opens with its weakest link, Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter of The Revenant and The Maze Runner), a returned, badly burned war veteran who is painfully trying to reassume his role as master of the manse at Hundreds Hall, a threadbare mansion reduced to a single teenage maid (Liv Hill) to handle the needs of Roderick, his worried and melancholy sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and their tragic mother (Charlotte Rampling), who is still haunted at the loss of a first child Susan many years earlier.

Poulter is a capable actor, but acting under latex is a challenge at the best of times, and suspending disbelief towards his portrayal of a profoundly injured noble is a challenge for the audience too.

Nonetheless, Roderick is the catalyst for all that happens in The Little Stranger, after he is brought to the attention of the local doctor, Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson). Talented beyond what’s usually asked of him, he experiments with electric shock therapy on Roderick’s stiffened and painful limbs, the results of which attracts the attention of the medical establishment in London.

So there is a pull on Faraday to leave the village of The Hundreds. But at the same time, there is a mysterious attraction to the place for him, which dates back to his childhood, when his mother was one of the servants, and he ached to be part of upper-class life.

His obsession is projected onto Caroline, whose own attitude to her inheritance is resentful. Besides being nearly impossible to maintain, Caroline believes it carries a curse that dates to her sister’s death, a belief shared by her brother, as his own mental state deteriorates

Abrahamson doesn’t disappoint with the noises-in-the-night and creaking-doors (to say nothing of beckoning-bells in the servants’ area that all ring at once), but Faraday is determined to find prosaic explanations.

Meanwhile, he’s also determined to gain that long-lost entry into high society, however disheveled, by wooing Caroline. After years of solitary life, she finds relief mixing with the remains of the aristocracy at parties and dances. But the allures wears off quickly, and she soon begins to pull away, both from her obsessed doctor/fiance and from the moribund manor life to which she was supposedly born.

As the emotional crisis grows, so too does the paranormal activity. Is it a ghost? A poltergeist? A manifestation of a living person’s angst?

Well acted all around by Gleeson, Wilson and Rampling, The Little Stranger asks a lot for what it modestly delivers. And if you like endings that can be argued about afterward, it delivers that too.

The Little Stranger. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling. Opens wide, Friday, August 31.