Atmosphere will carry a movie a long way, especially a haunted-house suspense thriller, but it’s still not enough to overcome the creaky plot mechanics in “The Little Stranger.”
That’s too bad, because this adaptation of Sarah Waters’ 2009 Gothic novel is the work of director Lenny Abrahamson, his first since helming Brie Larson to her Oscar for “Room.” Here, the space is bigger, but the menace isn’t.
In an English village in 1947, Dr. Faraday (played by Domhnall Gleeson) is the studious young town doctor. He is called up to Hundreds Hall, the once-opulent mansion outside of town, when a young maid, Betty (Liv Hill), becomes terrified of something mysterious she’s seen there. Dr. Faraday chalks it up to nerves and loneliness, since there are so few people for Betty to talk to in the house.
There are three, in fact, members of the Ayres family. There’s the matriarch, Angela (Charlotte Rampling), and her two children, Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and Roddy (Will Poulter). Roddy is a World War II veteran who was horrifically wounded in combat. He hides his fire-scarred face from everyone, and Angela and Charlotte have become virtual hermits in sympathy.
Dr. Faraday (we never learn his first name, which is in itself suspicious) has memories of Hundreds Hall. As a lad, his mother worked as a servant there, and he fell in love with the place on the one time he was allowed to visit. He recalled seeing a cute little girl, Angela’s oldest child Susan, who died at age 8.
Dr. Faraday starts making regular visits to Hundreds Hall. First, he’s there to treat Roddy, using a new experimental electronic apparatus to stimulate his withered leg muscles. But soon the good doctor is coming around to see Caroline, as a tentative romance begins — though that may be more to Dr. Faraday’s liking than it is to hers.
Abrahamson and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon (“The Danish Girl”) calibrate the movie’s tone, the sense of creeping dread that permeates this old house, with precision. What gets muddled are the motivations for the story’s characters, as the loneliness of the Ayres’ siblings and the social-climbing ambitions of Dr. Faraday smack into the more straightforward supernatural elements.
The performances by all four leads are strong, particularly Gleeson’s portrayal of the tightly coiled doctor who morphs ever-so-gradually from bemused observer to the story’s prime mover. One just wishes all this work wasn’t in service to a story that’s so dour and disappointing.
‘The Little Stranger’
Opens Friday, August 31, at some theaters across America; in the Salt Lake City area at: Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City), Century 16 (South Salt Lake), Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy). Cinemark 24 at Jordan Landing (West Jordan), and Megaplex 20 at The District (South Jordan). Rated R for some disturbing bloody images. Running time: 111 minutes.