Film review: Irish director Lenny Abrahamson's new movie The Little Stranger

Oscar-nominated Room director Lenny Abrahamson teams up fellow Dubliner Domhnall Gleeson and English screen great Charlotte Rampling for a dark but stylish portrait of dysfunctional family relationships, writes Damon Smith

Domhnall Gleeson as Dr Faraday in The Little Stranger
Damon Smith

SPECTRES of the past lash out with horrifying consequences in The Little Stranger, an ambiguous thriller of simmering desires set inside a crumbling mansion in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Adapted from Sarah Waters's gothic novel, Irish director Lenny Abrahamson's picture conjures a mood of grim foreboding, enriched by Stephen Rennick's haunting orchestral score that seems to anticipate the whispering breeze and creaking floorboards of a country pile that has seen far better days.

It is an atmospheric and stylish portrait of dysfunctional family relationships and class warfare that builds tension gradually, with occasional jump-out-of-seat scares that may or may not be the result of supernatural phenomena.

Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon retains the ambiguity of Waters's source text, opening the central mystery to multiple interpretations until a finale nudges us sharply in one dizzying direction and we land in a state of shock with a satisfying thud.

Performances from the central quartet – Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling and Will Poulter – are as tightly wound as the plot, repressing emotions behind trembling, stiff upper lips for the sake of appearances.

Nervous breakdowns take place behind closed doors, not in front of the servants.

Dr Faraday (Gleeson) is summoned to Hundreds Hall, which is owned by physically and mentally scarred soldier Roderick Ayres (Poulter), who exhibits the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Roderick lives in the crumbling property with his downtrodden sister Caroline (Wilson), imperious mother Angela (Rampling) and a housemaid, Betty (Liv Hill). The veteran is convinced that a dark force in the house means him harm.

Faraday doesn't pay attention to his patient's delusions and in flashback, the medic recalls a visit to Hundreds Hall as a 10-year-old boy (played by Oliver Zetterstrom) when he was dazzled by the grandeur of the house and rudely broke off a wooden acorn from the furnishings to take home as a souvenir.

Back in the present, Faraday becomes a regular visitor to the house and a dutiful companion to spinster Caroline.

During a dinner party, a young guest is mauled by the family's normally placid labrador and soon after, Faraday discovers scrawls on a wall purportedly left by Angela's dead daughter Susan (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland).

As Angela's mental state unravels, Faraday steps in to oversee her treatment and clashes with sweetheart Caroline about the best course of action.

The Little Stranger is an impressive exercise in mood and inference, which holds us in a steely grip for almost two hours.

Production design traps us inside Hundreds Hall with the characters, nervously looking at the edge of each frame for clues to the horror that lurks beneath the building's dilapidated facade.

The true darkness of Abrahamson's film lurks in the silences between emotionally damaged people.

THE LITTLE STRANGER (12A, 111 mins) Drama/Thriller/Romance. Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill, Camilla Arfwedson, Oliver Zetterstrom, Tipper Seifert-Cleveland. Director: Lenny Abrahamson

RATING: 7/10

Released: September 21 (UK & Ireland)

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