Ghost of the class system in ‘The Little Stranger’
“The Little Stranger,” director Lenny Abrahamson’s first film since “Room” (2015), is purposely slow and cumulatively affecting. It’s based on Sarah Walters’s 2009 novel. Set in rural England in 1948, it’s a kind of ghost story in which the real haunting isn’t done by a poltergeist — though there certainly does seem to be one, and there are several corpses to prove it — but by that hardest-to-exorcise of English demons, the class system.
Dr. Faraday (we never do learn his first name) has returned to the corner of Warwickshire where he grew up as a poor, working-class boy. Is that boy, whom we meet in flashbacks, the title character — or is it the girl who may or may not be the ghost?
As played with baroque austerity by Domhnall Gleeson, Faraday is a version of Anthony Hopkins’s butler in “The Remains of the Day” (1993), a man who substitutes diligence for feeling so diligently that duty turns into something like self-indulgence. It’s an existential stunt. Yet Gleeson’s performance reveals the pain and cost the stunt demands — and demands — and demands. Faraday has a gingery little mustache that looks like a caterpillar, until you realize it’s more like a scar.
This being 70 years ago, doctors still make house calls. One of Faraday’s first is to Hundreds Hall, the local manor house. It’s gothically ramshackle, but nowhere near as damaged as its inhabitants. Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter), who served in the RAF, was grievously burned in the war. His sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) has a pained, drained face that in a very different way can be as alarming as her brother’s. Faraday’s face may be closed. Hers is locked. As for Mrs. Ayres, the matriarch, she’s so steely and otherworldly it will come as no surprise that she’s Charlotte Rampling.
“People like the Ayres will run you bloody ragged if you let them,” a colleague warns Faraday. He’s not deterred. He’s especially not deterred by Caroline. Wilson gives a performance that in its own way is as striking as Gleeson’s. She’s best known for “The Affair” and for playing Idris Elba’s crazy-lady nemesis on the BBC series “Luther.” Caroline could be that woman with the craziness burned away so that nothing is left but despair. Whether she becomes Faraday’s nemesis, savior, or both is the burden of the story.
Almost as interesting as that question is another one: How to categorize “The Little Stranger”? With its English setting and observation of upper-crust manners, it’s a small-scale, down-at-the-heels version of “Downton Abbey — or a “Phantom Thread” where the needles are all on the inside. With its closely observed sympathy for thwarted lives, it could be a Terence Davies movie. And with all that, it’s a ghost story, too, but of a very special sort. It’s a ghost story in the way that Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” is. That’s to say in the sense that any emotional autopsy is.
THE LITTLE STRANGER
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Written by Lucinda Coxon; based on the novel by Sarah Waters. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 111 minutes. R (some disturbing bloody images).