THE LITTLE STRANGER — Review by Diane Carson

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The Little Stranger wallows in gloomy tedium. Some films create a mood, remain completely consistent in their unfolding, and yet never manage to achieve a profound or moving experience despite all the elements aligned. This is the case with The Little Stranger, that coherently and single-mindedly follows Dr. Faraday, returning in 1948 Warwickshire to Hundreds Hall, a decaying mansion inhabited for two centuries by the Ayres family.

In residence are the mother, post-WWII PTSD son Roderick, daughter Caroline, servant Betty and, quite possibly, the ghost of a deceased young daughter Suki. There are some noises and bumps in the night, but little happens, and then with no fanfare. This is a rare misfire from director Lenny Abrahamson whose previous films Room and Frank cast a spell with characters thoroughly engrossing in isolated entrapment in the first case and with an eccentric personality in the second, both situations close to what we encounter in The Little Stranger. However, for almost two hours, The Little Stranger meanders forward, wallowing in gloomy rooms in which characters speak their lines with inertia triumphant.

Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon’s cinematic adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel fails to infuse any energy into the proceedings. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s immobile camera and murky lighting prove equally enervating. Fault also lies with the emotionless central couple: Dr. Faraday, who barely registers any response even when tragedy strikes, and Caroline, for whom he professes love with barely a flutter of passion, a listless delivery matched by her equally comatose response. In short, there’s no momentum, though attempts to provide some are painfully obvious, especially interjected flashbacks and voiceover narration, plus some jolting sound effects.

Probably best known as Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter series and perhaps now as General Hux in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Domhnall Gleeson impressed me with his performances in Ex Machina and Frank. Here as Dr. Faraday he has scant opportunity to shine so subdued is his character. Equally zombielike, Ruth Wilson as Caroline Ayres shows none of the vitality on display in her Showtime cable series The Affair. Only Charlotte Rampling as Mrs. Ayres conveys a captivating and intimidating presence, proving again why she’s among the best ever. The Little Stranger includes gothic elements but doesn’t bring them to life.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.