Director Lenny Abrahamson knows how to turn small spaces into big drama. His last film (‘Room’) focused on a single, small shed. The one before (‘Frank’) primarily took place in a remote music-studio cabin. With ‘The Little Stranger’ – adapted from Sarah Waters’ gothic novel – he’s expanded to the rather grander scale of an old, English manor house. But it feels no less effectively claustrophobic.
That manor house is Hundreds Hall, a decaying, 18th-century estate whose old-money residents, the Ayres family, can barely manage its upkeep during the late ’40s. When their sole maid falls ill, they summon Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a shy, awkward fellow, who soon confesses to having a lifelong obsession with the crumbling mansion since visiting during his childhood and befriends the eldest of the Ayers offspring, the earthy, practical Caroline (Ruth Wilson).
But as the stiff, white-collar doctor draws closer to the welly-wearing Caroline and begins to rather creepily exercise his aspiration for the life of the landed gentry, it also becomes evident there is a malevolent presence lurking in the shadows of Hundreds Hall – something seemingly set on accelerating House Ayres’ decline.
True to Waters’ book, Abrahamson valiantly resists turning ‘The Little Stranger’ into a full-on horror show, teasing its ghostly strands by delicate degrees, while Gleeson and Wilson’s increasingly uncomfortable relationship occupies the bulk of your attention. Those hoping for ‘Insidious’-like shocks and jump scares may find their patience tested, but to succumb to such frustration is missing the film’s fine point: there may possibly be a spectral threat here, but this is really a story about people haunted by something very different, but just as intangible: namely, class.