Movie review: ‘The Little Stranger’

Brad Keefe
“The Little Stranger” [Photo courtesy of Focus Features]

“The Little Stranger” is too much of a genre-bender to call it art-house horror outright, but that's surely the audience it should find.

It's a well-acted film that burns slow — the sort of pacing one might expect from a film based on a novel. It's a period piece with a romance and an exploration of class.

But it is also an unnerving gothic ghost story set in a place where ominous events take sinister turns, even if the scares never go full-bore.

It's the summer of 1948, and Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is a country doctor making a visit to the aging estate of the Ayres, a gentried family whose declining fortunes are apparent in the state of the grounds.

He's called to treat a young servant who is faking an illness, but Faraday's connection to the estate is deeper than this house call. His mother worked there when he was a boy.

The matriarch of the Ayers family (Charlotte Rampling) still carries herself with an air of aristocracy, but the next generation feels more than a step removed.

Her unmarried daughter, Caroline (Ruth Wilson), lives there, along with her brother, Roderick (Will Poulter), who is still recovering from injuries he sustained as a pilot in World War II.

As Faraday strikes up a connection with Caroline, he treats Roderick for his pain, both physical and psychological.

But there's also something amiss in the house. “I've got a bad feeling, Faraday,” Roderick intones before a house party. “A very bad feeling. Christ, don't you?”

This bad feeling is justified.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (“Room”) works from the novel by Sarah Waters to establish a layered drama that's spooky around the edges. It's smart and well-acted with a deliberate pace that wouldn't be confused with thrilling.

The themes of post-war tension are clear in this countryside, where declining wealth meets the working poor. And there's tension as Faraday and Caroline vacillate between friendship and romance.

“Stranger” is elevated by its central performances. Gleeson has established himself as one of the great working actors in my book. Who would have thought that Bill Weasley would emerge from the “Harry Potter” alumni pack?

Rampling is always a great addition, and Wilson makes Caroline the film's most complex character.

The art-house pace and horror don't always mix. If you're looking for jump scares, wait a week for “The Nun.” But if you're looking for a thinking person's creeps, introduce yourself to “The Little Stranger.”

Opens Thursday

3 stars out of 5

“The Little Stranger”