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Review: ‘The Little Stranger’ is a 1940s English ghost story that finds the virtue in ambiguity

Review: ‘The Little Stranger’ is a 1940s English ghost story that finds the virtue in ambiguity
Domhnall Gleeson and Ruth Wilson in "The Little Stranger." (Nicola Dove / Focus Features)

A slow-building shiver of a movie, “The Little Stranger” tells a familiar but pleasurably engrossing story. Adapted from a 2009 novel by the Welsh author Sarah Waters, this atmospheric postwar gothic unfolds at a crumbling English manor where the repressed have decided to return — not with a vengeance, exactly, but with motives shrouded in uncertainty and sorrow.

It’s a haunting that unfolds through the steady, skeptical gaze of a local doctor who is at once seduced by the grandeur of this country estate and blind to its lurking phantoms.

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Bad frights, good manners, the timeless clash between rationalism and belief: We are in unassailable if hardly original dramatic territory. And the gifted Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, no doubt aware of the hovering specters of “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Haunting of Hill House” and their various literary and cinematic descendants, does not commit the folly of trying to outdo them. Until its unnerving third act, “The Little Stranger” plays less like a horror movie than a drama about a family’s steady unraveling, punctuated by intimations of a deeper, weirder unease.

Abrahamson’s weapon of choice is understatement. There are no whooshing camera movements, no cheap shocks, no sudden bursts of computer-generated ectoplasm. A pervasive gloom is achieved and sustained using little more than meticulous underlighting, moldering production design and stately compositions that capture the house’s long-faded beauty and its cavernous emptiness. The director has more visual space to work with than he did in the first half of “Room,” his Oscar-winning 2015 film about a mother and son living in captivity, but he proves adept here at evoking a more implicit, psychological kind of confinement.

He also reaffirms his gift for dramatizing a story told by a curiously unreliable narrator, and distilling some but not all the author’s vocal nuances into cinematic form. This is no small feat, since the stiffly restrained Dr. Faraday (a fine Domhnall Gleeson) is hardly the most emotionally expressive of protagonists, and Lucinda Coxon’s sharp script wisely refuses the crutch of voice-over. Instead the movie simply keeps us close to Faraday’s side as he’s brought in to examine a nervous young maid, Betty (Liv Hill), at the venerable Hundreds Hall, which he fondly recalls having visited as a boy after the end of World War I.

Nearly 30 years later, England has emerged from another global cataclysm, and Hundreds Hall, not unlike Brideshead Castle before it, has fallen on hard times. So have the house’s surviving residents, particularly Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter), a former pilot still recovering from serious war wounds. His mother, Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling, steely as ever), and his sister, Caroline (a splendid Ruth Wilson), maintain sharp wits and a chipper demeanor even in the wake of their dwindling fortune, which makes it inevitable that they will have to give up their estate.

Faraday quickly becomes enough of a family friend — and perhaps something more, in Caroline’s case — to object to the idea of their selling Hundreds Hall, a feeling rooted in his childhood attachment to the place. A few recurring flashbacks illuminate that boyhood visit, during which we glimpse Mrs. Ayres’ eldest child, Susan, who fell ill and died shortly thereafter. When strange things start to happen back in the present — an intimate cocktail party that turns startlingly violent, a sudden decline in Roderick’s condition — you brace yourself for Susan’s ghost to make an appearance.

She does and she doesn’t. Like some of the best ghost stories, “The Little Stranger” is in no hurry to solve its own mystery. Even when Abrahamson allows the steady drip of tension to finally give way to door-rattling, glass-shattering terror, there remains something fundamentally oblique and unreadable about precisely what is haunting the Ayres estate. I’ve developed my own hunch, based particularly on the names Waters gives her characters, one of which directly invokes the dramatis personae of a famous Agatha Christie novel.

But hunches alone may not satisfy those moviegoers for whom nothing is scarier, or more off-putting, than a little narrative ambiguity. Happily, “The Little Stranger” has more than whodunit on its mind. Some of Abrahamson’s earlier films, including “Garage” and “What Richard Did,” have shown an acute sensitivity to class, and here he duly acknowledges the envy that has driven Faraday, a housemaid’s son, into the company of an aristocratic family whose enviable way of life is swiftly passing away.

A fascinating counterpoint soon emerges in the form of Caroline, who seems all too ready to bid farewell to the good old days. Played by Wilson in the movie’s most memorable performance, Caroline is a figure of serene defiance, calmly and sometimes joyously pushing back against society’s dismissal of her as a hopeless spinster. She gives this ghost story its fiercely independent spirit.

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‘The Little Stranger’

Rating: R, for some disturbing bloody images

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

Playing: In general release

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