Friday, August 31, 2018

The Little Stranger (2018)

Dr. Faraday has intense memories of the grand Hundreds Hall as a child and finds himself returning as an adult to treat their fearful maid. As he befriends the Ayres family that includes Roderick, Caroline, and their mother Angela, weird and violent events start happening in their now dilapidated house.

The Little Stranger is an atmospheric film adaptation of Sarah Water's unconventional haunted house novel. Much of the film is well done, especially in the visuals, the performances and characters, the placement and intensity of the violent events, and the implications of the ending. The cinematography is beautiful with muted, dreary tones for the present and bright, colorful hues for the past. This is through Faraday's eyes because he idealizes the past. Hundreds Hall used to be a magnificent house with intricate moldings, fresh flowers on every floor, and home to the most exclusive parties. The home is owned by the Ayres family, part of the upper echelons of society even when the house has fallen into disrepair as a result of their fortune running out. Now, Hundreds is a ghost of its former glory with four people living in the massive structure, struggling to keep things running.

The characters feel authentic due to the superb writing and acting. Faraday is a restrained man stuck in between the levels of society. He grew up poor as a shopkeeper and nanny's son, only invited to the one party at Hundreds because his mother used to work there. That place is everything he ever wanted but can never have as someone born lower class. As an adult, he's known as a decent doctor and seems to be rather well off, but still doesn't fit in as the Ayres do despite their differing fortune. People still treat him as if he doesn't belong. The Ayres do belong, but the situation isn't good for them either. They hold on to the monstrosity of a house because of tradition even as it molders aroudn them. Roderick has control of the property and their money because of society's expectations even though he clearly isn't competent to do so. The matriarch Angela would rather suffer with mental illness rather than see a psychologist and bring further shame to her family. Both parties suffer in their roles imposed by society.

The horror elements are few and far between, but they are masterfully done. The rest of the film kind of lulls you into a false sense of security so when these moments come up, they are jarring, almost always violent, and graphic. The first scene of this nature is when the Ayres have a party and Caroline's old, docile lab mauls the face of a little girl. I was shocked at its graphic nature and the tragic ramifications for the girl, the dog, and the Ayres. The only non-violent incident is the wardrobe suddenly full of childishly scrawled S's, which solidifies Angela's will to stay in the house thinking it's the spirit of her dead daughter. The rest of the scenes are memorable, artfully filmed, and somber.

** here there be spoilers **

The ending has interesting implications. Faraday starts out the movie as a decent man. He befriends struggling neighbors and has either a pleasant friendship or awkward courtship with Caroline. Later in the film, he becomes extremely possessive, stooping to forcing Caroline's consent to marriage on the evening of her mother's funeral. It's a disgusting scene that automatically made me hate him. Days later, Caroline doesn't want to get married at all, sold the house, and plans to move away to Canada or America to start over. He refuses to accept it but still leaves. For him, Caroline becomes synonymous with the house. They both represent his longing for success, acceptance in high society, happiness, and love. However, equating a house with a woman gives his possessive view a misogynistic slant. The cause of all the Ayre family problems turns out to be an imprint of Faraday as a child. That scene is shown so many times in the film: his longing overcoming him so that he snaps an acorn from some molding on the wall and his mother humiliates him in front of Angela's daughter Sukey. The shame, anger, and wanting in that moment created a sort of poltergeist that terrorized the family their whole lives.

I have mixed thoughts about the ending. On one hand, it shows how toxic the hierarchy of society is to all involved. On the other hand, three people are now dead because a little boy didn't get his way. In terms of class, I think it's well done. It also portrays the destructive force of toxic masculinity when entitled men don't get their way. I hate that Faraday essentially wins in the end even though he's no better for it. The nail in the coffin for me was when he testified in court that Caroline's death must have been suicide due to her "mental instability" when she rejected him. It's unclear whether he truly believes this or if he's knows he's lying. I supposed I could believe a man thinking a woman is insane for not wanting him. The film could also be interpreted as adult Faraday murdering Caroline and then securing his innocence by lying, but that wouldn't explain any of the other phenomena.

The Little Stranger is as restrained a film as Faraday is a character. The supernatural and violent elements seem extreme in comparison, matching the extremes in visuals. There is a lot of development and quiet moments in between, so it takes a little patience and care about the characters to  Although I have mixed feelings about the ending, the film in undeniably well made and acted. Charlotte Rampling as Angela is an iron matriarch through everything. Domhnall Gleeson as Faraday holds up the bulk of the film and makes everything believable in a subtle way. Although I found the ending a bit controversial, The Little Stranger is worth your time.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

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