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The Little Stranger Movie Review

Droste Story

The protagonist in Peter Straub's novel "Ghost Story" at one point gives an academic lecture in which he describes Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage" as "a great ghost story in which the ghost never appears." It's up for debate whether that is an effective description of the famous Civil War novel - admittedly Straub's narrator offers his thoughts while on the verge of a nervous breakdown - but it is a fitting assessment of the new film, "The Little Stranger." Set in a crumbling manor house in the English countryside as the Empire's citizens struggle to recover from World War II, "Stranger" focuses on those who haunt, and those who are haunted. Does the ghost ever appear? That's a question best left to the ether.

Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson ("mother!") is a subdued lead as Dr. Faraday, a young veteran who's sought to break free of his lower-class origins by becoming a physician. One day he is summoned to Hundreds Hall, seat of the formerly grand Ayres family, to tend to a fretful young maid who serves there. During Faraday's visit we learn that the once-thriving Ayres clan is now dying on the vine: son Roderick (Will Poulter, "Detroit") has returned from the war with horribly disfiguring and debilitating injuries, daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson, Showtime's The Affair) stays close to home with few prospects for marriage and seemingly no interest in it, and mother Angela (Charlotte Rampling, "Red Sparrow") may never quite have gotten over the loss of her treasured eldest daughter, who perished many years earlier under circumstances that the film only hints at. We also begin to see that Faraday has a history with these people, and especially with this place; his mother worked there as a servant during happier times, and he's never let go of his awe and fascination with the house.

Despite the maid's assertion that there is something wrong in the house, Faraday accepts an invitation to join the family at a small dinner party. Soon he's integrated into their daily lives, persuading Roderick to let him apply an experimental treatment for his injuries, and pursuing a romance with Caroline. It's an unexpected and tenuous match, but Faraday persists, dazzled by the prospect of possessing both the woman he desires and the house he has always been in love with. But there are peculiar bumps along the way, as accidents befall visitors to the estate, strange noises and odd wall markings erupt, and family members slip into episodes of madness that include visions of ghostly trespass and a phantom fire that becomes all too real. Is there a thread of insanity that runs through the family, spelling its eventual doom? Or are they truly haunted by some terrible curse or secret? And what exactly is it that continues to keep Faraday fixated on Caroline and in thrall to the slowly decaying house?

"The Little Stranger" is based on a novel by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, and those origins are apparent in the feel of the film. It unfolds slowly, and there is a constant impression of things happening offscreen: we can feel that these characters have lives beyond what we observe, adding richness and depth to the story. "Stranger" has a great sense of place, with the towering ceilings and elaborate appointments of the once-grand manor, now descending from genteel shabbiness into early decay, serving as both a fascinating setting and an obvious reflection of the family's history. For some this leisurely pacing and oblique plot development will be offputting, but those who appreciate the benefits of occasionally evasive storytelling will enjoy this thought-provoking mystery that makes the most of its gothic trappings.

The acting in "Stranger" is first-rate, from Mr. Gleeson's low-key intensity to Ms. Rampling's slowly developing hysteria. Ms. Wilson turns in another excellent performance as the generally no-nonsense Caroline, whose buttoned-up forthrightness softens on occasion to reveal glimpses of a sensuality that might have been. Director Lenny Abrahamson's previous work on "Room" demonstrated his way with actors as well as his masterful handling of space, and both skills are amply on display here. While the film's denouement may be opaque, it's clear that we are being well-guided along the way.

Like last year's "mother!," "The Little Stranger" is pitched in its trailer as a horror story, but is it? Maybe yes, maybe no. It is creepy and unsettling, fraught with a sense of unseen forces and unanswered questions, and it works on its own terms as the tale of a certain kind of haunting. In the end, it may not matter if the ghost appears or not: in this case, it doesn't need to.

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