What better setting for a ghost story than a dilapidated mansion? Peeling paint, groaning pipes, creaky stairs, and abandoned rooms—you barely need a phantom to complete the picture. Recent onscreen hauntings have included Guillermo del Toro’s excellent Crimson Peak in 2015, set in a manse where red mud dripped from the walls, or Ari Aster’s Hereditary, with its creepy dollhouses and even creepier mid-century modern home. Hundreds Hall, the main venue of The Little Stranger, has all the makings of a classic haunted house. It’s a crumbling edifice decades removed from its former glory, filled with the dysfunctional remnants of an aristocratic family.
But Lenny Abrahamson’s new film, an adaptation of Sarah Waters’s 2009 novel, isn’t quite as rote a tale as that setting might make it seem. It’s a delicate movie that uses the standard dressing of a ghost story to dig into Britain’s postwar class upheaval. Here, the emphasis isn’t on jump scares, but on genuine, pervasive dread. There’s a suggestion of the paranormal, though that dread could simply be the wheels of time turning against the upper-class Ayres family: They’re haunted equally by the loss of a daughter to illness years ago and by the loss of their place in the world as the country changes around them.
Into this decaying palace walks Doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), initially called to inspect the home’s maid (its only remaining servant), who has fallen ill. He soon realizes the maid (Liv Hill) is not sick, but merely lonely, overwhelmed by her life in an empty house that was once fully staffed. So he goes upstairs to get a fuller diagnosis of what’s wrong at Hundreds Hall, and gets sucked into its deep churn of family drama, and possibly supernatural possession.
The home’s nominal master, Roderick (Will Poulter), is covered in burn scars from his service in the war and is reckoning with serious PTSD. His mother, Angela (Charlotte Rampling), has never really forgotten the death of her first daughter, Susan, many years prior. Her other daughter, Caroline (Ruth Wilson), is the only member of the family who seems remotely well adjusted, but she’s roundly ignored by the rest of the Ayreses as a result. Faraday, who is buttoned-up even by the standards of an English costume drama, quickly develops a crush on her, along with an increased obsession with Hundreds Hall itself.
Abrahamson’s film (scripted by the playwright Lucinda Coxon) is, much like his last effort, Room, very focused on the space its characters must navigate through. Hundreds Hall is a fascinating location, with spectacular murals rendered on faded wallpaper and entire floors standing empty, a reminder of the home’s former primacy in its rural Warwickshire location. Roderick is struggling to sell some of the family’s land just to keep finances afloat, and due to his limp he’s started sleeping in the sumptuous drawing room, leaving the Ayreses literally unable to entertain guests.
Faraday is firmly middle-class, a country doctor who served in the war; now, he’s part of Britain’s fledgling National Health Service, which was introduced by Clement Attlee’s Labour government, elected with a sweeping majority in 1945. As the father of the NHS, Attlee ushered in a real sense of societal change in the country. Faraday, as a young boy, idolized the inhabitants of Hundreds Hall as remote gods, and the film frequently cuts back to his memories of attending a garden party there and wondering at the life he could not lead.
The doctor’s nascent relationship with Caroline thus gets rapidly tied up in his buried desire to climb the social ladder, even as it’s clear that her way of life is going extinct. So even their romance, the film’s one spot of optimism, is suffused with Faraday’s unspoken anxieties. Alongside that is the creeping notion that the house is occupied with some sort of poltergeist, perhaps Susan’s lingering spirit. Doors rattle, servant’s bells are rung in unoccupied rooms, and mysterious writing is found on walls and furniture, suggesting—if nothing else—a house in open rebellion against its occupants.
Abrahamson uses sound magnificently to rack up the tension as things go from uneasy to actually frightening. One room’s acoustics are so perfect that every line is magnified to hit one’s ear like a bullet; other times, strange whispers and barely audible noises click around the room, often going unexplained. The film builds to a conclusion that’s undoubtedly surprising, but also far from the kind of hackneyed twist I feared. The performers, particularly Gleeson, keep The Little Stranger from feeling easy to figure out. Every character is struggling to play their part in Britain’s ordered society, and it’s rare that they disobey those strictures. But the entire film has the sense of something being profoundly, and mercifully, upended; the result is engrossing, satisfying, and more than a little heartbreaking.