Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE LITTLE STRANGER
There’s a difference between leaving audiences asking thought-provoking questions and leaving them absolutely confused. Much of the work of William Shakespeare is a good example of this, as it’s so deeply layered that it can be maddening for many. I’ll never forget overhearing a couple’s dinner conversation about this point; the man declaratively hollered “Just say what you mean,” as if he was yelling at the playwright himself.
While director Lenny Abrahamson’s THE LITTLE STRANGER is by no means on the same level as Shakespeare’s work, it bears some distant thematic ties, but with more modern sentiments. Based on the gothic novel by Sarah Waters, this slow-as-molasses picture is also layered in meaning and explanation – so much so, it might leave audiences baffled.
Country doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) has been summoned to Hundreds Hall, a once-opulent 18th Century estate, to care for a sick maid (Liv Hill). The mansion, which has fallen into disrepair, was owned by the richest family in the English countryside – the Ayres. But they too have fallen on hard times: Mom (Charlotte Rampling) is still grieving the loss of her first daughter who died decades prior. Son/ former RAF pilot Roderick (Will Poulter) suffers not only from the mental scars of WWII, but also the physical ones of his badly burned body. Daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) is in charge of it all – and she’s hanging on to her sanity by a thread. Feeling sorry for the Ayers, Faraday agrees to stay on to treat Roderick’s condition. However, strange things begin happening in the house shortly thereafter.
There are a multitude of problems that haunt the picture – more so than the actual ghosts that are supposedly haunting its characters. On the whole, the film is far too perplexing for its own good. It’s a thick soup of ideas that gets over-saturated by too many different, complex flavors. Sure, it’s a thoroughly ambitious idea to have each character’s perspective represented within the context of one overarching narrative that touches upon social upheaval, class warfare and the oppressive nature of “nice guy” toxic behavior. Unfortunately, it doesn’t achieve a good balance when the audience struggles to figure out where their sympathies lie. Plus, adding to further misunderstandings, protagonists and antagonists switch for narrative purposes too.
Nuance and subtlety are there, which can be a great technique in filmmaking, especially in gothic mysteries. However, the filmmakers go overboard on ambiguity, leaving us grasping to make sense of it all. The film requires its audience to be hyper-alert, but it bores most of us to death before anything gets going. The narrative gives more weight to the ensuing drama and romance and far less to the supernatural element. Similar to the book, the climax remains deliberately ambiguous.
Clues to the lackluster reveal are parceled out like tiny, rationed breadcrumbs. Though it all logically lines up (or does it?), it’s a lot of work for the viewer to piece it all together. A lot of work. This is what the inside of your brain will look like afterward:
Visual cues, like Abrahamson’s camera techniques when conflict occurs, and the specific use of props (notice what everyone is typically doing when bad things manifest) help guide us to a straightforward conclusion. The oppressive nature of the decaying mansion echoes one of the character’s decaying morals and ethics. Sound design plays a major part in this as well, not only by augmenting ambiance, but also providing a sonic connection to the narrative.
Managing to evoke the ghosts of literary classics like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher), Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, Henry James’ The Turning of the Screw (cinematically adapted as THE INNOCENTS) and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Abrahamson stirs up a desire in our souls to see something a little more spooky and spirited.
THE LITTLE STRANGER opens on August 31.