The Little Stranger: The Expectation, The Expertise, The Ending.

My favourite film of 2016 was undoubtedly director Lenny Abrahamson’s brilliant adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room. My second favourite film of last year, just just being topped by Dunkirk, was Chan-Wook Park’s The Handmaiden which was a version of the book Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. There was no question then that I was looking forward to this one; Abrahamson’s follow up to Room which brings Waters’ fifth book The Little Stranger to the screen. The Little Stranger is very different to both Room and The Handmaiden but it is another superb piece of cinema and I’m happy to say it met all of my expectations.

This film has a much broader scope than both Room and Abrahamson’s previous movie Frank and on the surface looks to be much more of a genre piece compared to both of those films which defied categorisation. Like the source material though the ghost story aspect is only very thinly laid over the top of a fascinating tale of human nature and social class in provincial post war Britain. Also, unlike The Handmaiden/Fingersmith and much of Waters’ work it doesn’t concern young Victorian women falling in love with one another and finding strength in their devotion to fight against a close minded patriarchy. In fact conversely to Waters’ stories Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and The Night Watch which centre around powerful, empowering passion The Little Stranger is about equally powerful but destructive repression.

Domhnall Gleeson (who’s films Ex Machina and The Force Awakens happened to be my top two in 2015) takes the lead as Faraday, a 1948 doctor who is called to attend the maid at nearby Hundred Hall, an old estate that has fallen into some disrepair. There he becomes involved with the residents; Charlotte Rampling’s mother and her grown up children Caroline and war crippled Roderick played by Ruth Wilson and Will Poulter. Reigniting his own fascination with the house, started during a single visit that took place in his childhood, Faraday struggles first to accept the family’s reduced status following the fall of the aristocracy, then with their belief that the building is haunted and finally with his developing feelings for Caroline.

The expertise with which Abrahamson lays out Waters’ plot avoids the traits of other period dramas and demonstrates his excellent narrative restraint. Focusing on character and setting but without lingering on any aspect of either a second longer than necessary he steers away from the soap of things like Downton Abbey, the melodrama of say, The Lady in Black or the consuming mystery of films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock. This is not to criticise any of these other excellent productions but by steering away from them and their ilk this feels more individual. The performances are all strong as well with everyone in the celebrated cast doing some of their best work. At first it seems that Gleeson is playing another buttoned up Brit but there are layers to his character not seen really elsewhere. Rampling has found a part to suit her posh persona better than anything she has done since Melancholia and Poulter and Wilson both add to their increasing reputations for impressive diversity.

The real strength of The Little Stranger is in the handling of its denouement though. The close of Waters’ novel plays on its ambiguity but Abrahamson picks up on one the many possibilities the author suggests and offers an interpretation that cinematically at least has not really been done before. The two very different trailers for the movie set it up as either a Rebecca style psychological pot boiler or a horror film in the fashion of The Others but in the end it is actually neither, instead being something much more original. The final moments of the film are less of a twist or reveal and more of a confirmation of what you have slowly come to expect is going on but it is no less satisfactory for this. What we have here is the best possible combination of film maker and novelist, with the former creating something different to even what the latter put on paper which was in itself presenting something new. Since Abrahamson and Waters were my two hooks going into this, together then they have given me exactly what I wanted.

If you’ve not seen the film then let’s stop there.

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Okay, let’s get into that ending. While the end of the movie remains open to some interpretation; maybe she jumped, maybe she was seeing things, maybe he broke in and pushed her, to me there was actually nothing ambiguous about what I was seeing.

I thought it became quite clear what was going on during Faraday’s conversation with the older doctor in the pub. It had been established that there is probably some kind of spirit in the house, something that Roderick couldn’t quite identify beyond saying it was ‘a thing that hates us’ and something that Mrs. Ayres thinks is her dead daughter. Faraday posits though that under significant pressure the human subconscious might somehow fracture from the conscious and become a force by itself thus creating a sort of poltergeist. This is clearly what has happened to him. During his brief time in the house as a child, when he was the little stranger of the title, he had such a strong reaction to the place that despite being physically dragged away he was never able to fully leave it. A part of him is left behind. This is why he is so repressed as an adult, because the uninhibited side of him, the unstifled and inquisitive childish part of him was torn away. This is also why he was so keen to live in the house and not see it sold, although he may not have known this is what was compelling him. He just knew he’d be incomplete if he stayed away.

This newly disembodied entity, driven by love, confusion, jealousy or a potent, dangerous mix of all three then killed young Susan (it is said she was never the same after the day of the boy Faraday’s time in the house and unlike in the novel it is never stated that she died of diphtheria), it caused the dog to attack the girl Gillian (this is the most upsetting part of the film), it drove Roderick and his mother to self destruction and when she would not do what Faraday wanted it threw Caroline over the balcony.

It is simple yet brilliant. What is presented is the notion of a ghost of somebody who isn’t dead, and one that the still living person may have no idea they have created. The Japanese Call this an Ikiryō but in Western culture this is something rarely explored and in cinema it has no precedent. It is because of this that something from the minds of Lenny Abrahamson and Sarah Waters is going to be high in my favourites list of this year too.

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