Adapting Sarah Waters’ “The Little Stranger” was never going to be an easy task, but it should have been an obvious one. The 2009 novel is more than a ghost story, often seeming unfocused in where it’s guiding the reader through its combination platter of haunted house thriller, romantic drama, and metaphoric portrait of social class restructuring in postwar England. The movie version would have done well to really lean into the horror aspect of the book, however, or at least done a better job of setting up the gothic nature of the narrative, rather than trying to be faithful to all facets of the story and coming across as all over the place. As it is, Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger is a confused work that never settles on what it’s meant to be.
The plot follows a country doctor, Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), through his involvement with a gentry family residing in a crumbling mansion (think Grey Gardens meets Downton Abbey). After being called out to treat the estate’s one lonely young maid (Liv Hill), Faraday offers to treat the man of the house, Roderick (Will Poulter), who suffers from residual wartime injuries, and in his visits he becomes friendly with Roderick’s sister, Caroline (Ruth Wilson), and somewhat cordial with the matriarch of the home, Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling). Over time, as Faraday becomes a regular guest, strange events occur at the manor, called Hundreds Hall, eventually resulting in tragedy.
Like the novel, the movie takes a while to get into the suggestion of a ghost in the Ayres’ home, but while Waters takes her time setting up the atmosphere and characters of her story, Abrahamson, working off a script by Lucinda Coxon (The Danish Girl), slogs through a skimming of plot details and character development, fixating on its perplexing voiceover narration and vague flashbacks to when Faraday was a boy visiting Hundreds Hall in its livelier days. There’s good reason for setting up the past, especially the backstory of another Ayres child who died as a young girl, but it winds up providing muddled rather than clarifying context.
There is a difference between being subtle or ambiguous and what transpires in The Little Stranger. The plot seems to thicken one night during a small social gathering when a kid is mauled by Caroline’s dog, yet its significance to anything is ignored for the longest time and so just seems like a random bit of extra misfortune for the Ayres. From there, Roderick experiences mysterious, maybe supernatural, incidents in his room, but Faraday dismisses them and has the man committed to a psychiatric hospital. The ordeal is swiftly montaged, and before we know it, the character is gone. Without time to get to know him or care about his fate and without seeing enough of his decline.
Whatever mystery lies in the story is in the wonder of what’s missing, what’s not being shown, rather than what’s causing sudden fires to combust and odd markings to appear on the walls and the servants’ call bell system to erupt in rings from vacant rooms. The question of what’s going on, which the audience may have regarding the plot, isn’t so much a curiosity of some revelation to come so much as bafflement in response to unclear direction. Thanks to the cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland (The Crown), the film is handsomely foggy, always pleasant to look at, but Abrahamson, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Director for his previous feature, Room, and his usual editor, Nathan Nugent, don’t connect those shots into a cohesive whole.
Admittedly, because I’d read the book, I wondered if I was only sensing gaps in the storytelling because there’s more detail in the novel. As there always is. But there is undoubtedly a deficiency in the establishment of the characters in the adaptation. Only Faraday borders on being a well-formed entity, and even then the character has the benefit of shorthand in the casting. Gleeson is a versatile actor well-associated with roles both charming and petulant, and the more we can project onto him of that known range matters to his performance of an inscrutable man who is agreeable or despicable in any given scene, and interchangeably either in most.
If there’s one thing the movie really shares with the book faithfully, it’s a rather rushed and anticlimactic payoff. But at least Waters’ novel is rich in its themes and tension and sense of time and place. The Little Stranger on screen isn’t a slow burn thriller, just a boring drama without a clear or consistent sense of terror or an interesting consideration of British history or an intriguing study of an obsessive and moody but intellectually rational protagonist with progress and mobility in his desires, coming up against a clan caught in the past. It’s difficult to see what or whom the adaptation is intended for, what reason it has to bring the story to cinematic form. In this case, it’s not a matter of the book being better. This film is so empty that the book is really all there is.