Based on the best-selling book 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, and by its haunted humans.
Tall, upright Domhnall Gleeson stars as Dr. Faraday, who, in 1947, makes a call to the Ayres mansion.
He looks in on the sick maid, Betty (Liv Hill) to discover she’s fine, but sticks around to speak with other occupants.
Roderick (Will Poulter) suffers bad burns, and deeper wounds, from his time in the war. Faraday thinks he can help with a radical new treatment, which also provides him an excuse to return to see Roderick’s fetching sister, Caroline (Ruth Wilson).
Flashbacks show how Faraday visited the mansion as a boy, when his mother worked there as a maid, during a party for an angelic, perfect birthday girl. He 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. Issues of class and separation are in play throughout.
Faraday keeps returning, even spending Christmas at the mansion. Strange things begin happening. Marks appear on the walls, and servants’ bells sound, when no one’s 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. Faraday must grapple with whatever is at the heart of the house.
Director Lenny Abrahamson doesn’t make a flat-out horror movie. He artfully chooses shots rife with eerie movements and non-rhythmic cuts that underscore a sense of unease, without being shocking or terrifying.
Undoubtedly a skilled filmmaker, he’s perhaps a little too aware of appearances, too reluctant to really dive into the dark places. (His 2015 film “Room,” also well-made, was quasi-exploitative, a deeply uncomfortable film decorated to look tender and proper.)
Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon’s previous work was “The Danish Girl,” a movie geared more toward politeness than toward the blood of life.
Abrahamson here 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 meets his forceful charges with exhausted uncertainty. It’s this way in the book, too, 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.” Exquisitely designed, it went deep into erotic, weird, and even amusing, places.
While “The Handmaiden” flowed, “The Little Stranger” plays out in chunks as the doctor visits the house and as the scary — but really, not-scary — ghost stuff builds.
Abrahamson wants to emphasize the scary stuff, but also to be taken quite seriously. But if the movie becomes too scary, it becomes a “horror” movie, and thus, not important. 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, 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.
The Little Stranger
Two and a half stars
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling
Written by: Lucinda Coxon
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes