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With: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling, Camilla Arfwedson, Josh Dylan, Liv Hill, Tipper Seifert-Cleveland, Oliver Zetterström
Written by: Lucinda Coxon, based on a novel by Sarah Waters
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
MPAA Rating: R for some disturbing bloody images
Running Time: 111
Date: 08/31/2018

The Little Stranger (2018)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Bedside Manor

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Based on a novel by Sarah Waters, the new movie The Little Stranger is a gothic story set in a crumbling mansion that is, perhaps, populated by a ghost, as well as by its haunted humans.

The Little Stranger stars the tall, upright Domhnall Gleeson as Dr. Faraday, who, in 1947, makes a call to the Ayres mansion.

He looks in on the sick maid, Betty (Liv Hill), and quickly discovers that she's actually fine, but sticks around to speak with the other occupants of the mansion.

Roderick (Will Poulter) suffers bad burns — as well as deeper wounds — from his time in the war, and Faraday thinks he can help with a radical new treatment. This is also an excuse to return to see Roderick's fetching sister, Caroline (Ruth Wilson).

In flashbacks, we learn that Faraday once visited the mansion as a boy, when his mother worked there as a maid, during a party for the angelic, perfect birthday girl Susan. He even stole an ornamental acorn from the frame of a mirror. Depicted with a loud, echoing "snap," the theft has haunted him.

As a grownup, his new status as a quasi-insider in the house intrigues him, yet he remains aware of it, and of its incomplete nature. Issues of class and separation are in play throughout.

Faraday keeps returning, even spending Christmas at the mansion. But strange things begin happening. Marks begin appearing on the walls, and the servants' bells ring with no one there to ring them.

Roderick is shipped away to a mental hospital, and the house's matriarch (Charlotte Rampling) finds herself locked in a room, with dire results. And Faraday must grapple with whatever is at the heart of the house.

The director of The Little Stranger, Lenny Abrahamson, doesn't make a flat-out horror movie. He artfully chooses shots, rife with eerie movements and arhythmic cuts, that underscore a sense of unease, without ever venturing into shock or terror. (He thankfully avoids dumb jump-scares.)

He's undoubtedly a skilled filmmaker, but perhaps a little too aware of appearances, a little too reluctant to really dive into the dark places.

His previous film Room was also well-made, but was a quasi-exploitative, deeply uncomfortable film, that had been decorated to look tender and proper.

Moreover, screenwriter Lucinda Coxon's previous work was The Danish Girl, a movie geared more toward politeness than toward the blood of life.

In The Little Stranger, Abrahamson directs Gleeson to be weirdly stiff, a doctor with a short, sharp bedside manner. (He's similar to the goose-stepping General Hux he played in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.)

His romance with Caroline is awkward, she meeting his forceful charges with exhausted uncertainty. It's this way in the book as well, but onscreen, the treatment merely reveals a lack of simmer.

When Faraday brings Caroline to a dance, it's all business until Caroline finds an old girlfriend there. Squealing and drunk, the two women cut loose together, with Faraday watching grimly. It's a revealing moment, but it stops there, never to return.

A useful comparison lies with another movie based on a Waters book, Park Chan-wook's sublime The Handmaiden. That exquisitely designed movie was not afraid to go deep into erotic, weird, and even amusing places.

The Handmaiden flowed, but The Little Stranger plays out in chunks as the doctor visits the house and as the scary — but, really, not-scary — ghost stuff builds.

The film wants to assert that scary stuff is actually happening, but also wants to be taken quite seriously. If a scary stuff in a movie gets too scary, then it all plunges into becoming a "horror" movie, and thus, not important anymore. Abrahamson seems determined to keep this from happening.

The movie's elegance is often an asset, as is its treatment of the prickly ending; it's far better than a ham-fisted thing like this year's crushingly disappointing Winchester.

But it remains trapped somewhere, lost between opulence and ruin, between humans and ghosts. It might have made the blood run cold, but instead, the movie itself is cold-blooded.

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