You probably have to be receptive to a certain type of English brittleness to find the early stages of The Little Stranger anything but tedious, but it’s worth the effort. This is a slow-moving, afternoon-tea-and-marmalade kind of movie that slowly grows into something different.
At first, it seems like just another episode of Masterpiece Theatre—a stiff-upper-lip story set in the waning years of the British Empire, a time when the trajectory of an obscenely rich family fading into poverty and disgrace would contain an actual sense of poignancy.
This is perhaps being harsh on the main characters of The Little Stranger, a doomed family called Ayres who inhabit a crumbling estate named Hundreds Hall that they can barely “keep up.” (Imagine your biggest problem being that your mansion is simply too big to manage.)
To be fair, the Ayres have some problems, too: Son Roderick (Will Poulter) is suffering from a nasty World War II wound that wasn’t treated properly, aging daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) simply can’t land a good man, and mother Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) suspects Hundreds Hall may be under the spell of a ghost.
The fastidious Dr. Farraday (Domnhall Gleeson) saunters crisply their lives when Hundreds Hall’s last remaining maid falls sick. Farraday grew up poor, lusting from afar after the splendor of Hundreds Hall, and the idea that the members of this once-esteemed family now consider the doctor an equal gratifies him to no end. Soon he’s fully ensconced in the family, stuffily dismissing all the bad omens Hundreds Hall keeps giving them as fuss and nonsense.
Director Lenny Abrahamson (Room) has conjured a very effective mood, giving this story—based on a novel by The Paying Guests' Sarah Waters—the necessary hints of gothic horror. More significantly, though, Abrahamson keeps the supernatural elements just as restrained as these buttoned-up Brits.
All told, the film’s muted quality works very well: Once all of Hundreds Hall’s mysteries have run their course, the growing avarice of Farraday, the quietly sad resignation of the Ayreses, and the knowing, decaying walls of Hundreds Hall really stick with you.