The Little Stranger

Year: 2018
Directed by:  Lenny Abrahamson 
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter

Written by Fiona Underhill

The Gothic genre has had something of a revival in recent years, particularly focusing on the theme of gas-lighting, which feels especially relevant now in the era of “Time’s Up” and “Me Too.” We have had ‘Stoker’ (2013), ‘Crimson Peak’ (2015), ‘Lady Macbeth’ (2016), ‘My Cousin Rachel’ (2017), ‘The Beguiled’ (2017) and ‘Phantom Thread’ (2017) all featuring this theme and dealing with the reliability of protagonists and narrators. They have all been influenced (directly or indirectly) by Gothic literature (and in some cases Southern Gothic), Daphne Du Maurier, Dickens, and Alfred Hitchcock and are all right up my street. Now comes an adaptation of ‘The Little Stranger’ from author Sarah Waters, set in a haunted mansion in my home county of Warwickshire.

Director Lenny Abrahamson is best known for directing ‘Room’, the film which won Brie Larson the Best Actress Oscar. He has an eclectic CV, which also includes ‘Frank’, the tale of Frank Sidebottom, starring Michael Fassbender. The narrator of this tale is Doctor Faraday, played by Domhnall Gleeson, who is having an incredibly prolific few years, juggling his ‘Star Wars’ commitments with the likes of ‘American Made’ and ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’. He is a fantastic actor and I’m glad he’s finding so much work. Caroline Ayres is played by Ruth Wilson, who is mainly known for her role in the TV show ‘The Affair’ and it is somewhat surprising to see her cast as a ‘dowdy old maid’ character here, who is repeatedly referred to as being challenged in the looks department. One of my favourite actors, Will Poulter is typically excellent here as Roderick Ayres, a young man who was badly wounded in the war and is now struggling to manage the family estate. Poulter was recently seen in ‘Kids in Love’ and ‘Detroit’ but I will always associate him fondly with ‘Son of Rambow’ and ‘Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, where he showed enormous potential as a child actor. The Ayres family is rounded out with Mrs Ayres, played by living legend Charlotte Rampling, whose career is showing no signs of slowing down, in fact she has starred in ‘45 Years’, ‘Broadchurch’, ‘London Spy’ and ‘The Sense of an Ending’ (to name just a few high profile roles) within the last three years.

Doctor Faraday comes from humble beginnings and has always had a fascination with Hundreds Hall – the local manor and estate. As a child, he attends a fete there and he finds himself jealous of Suki Ayres, the little girl who lives there. Faraday’s mother had been a maid at the hall, which gives him access to through the hallowed doors for a brief time. It turns out that shortly after this happy occasion, Suki dies from an illness. Mrs. Ayres then goes on to have two more children – Caroline and Roderick. As an adult, Faraday is initially called to Hundreds Hall to attend to Betty (the maid), who has been spooked by something. He then decides to stay on, to try out some experimental treatments on Roderick’s legs. He becomes closer to Caroline, but both Roderick and Mrs. Ayres become troubled by strange occurrences in the hall.

The film plays with the reliability of the narrator well, leaving you questioning if any of the characters are trust-worthy by the end. Gleeson’s performance anchors the film masterfully, keeping Faraday’s true motivations hidden beneath layers of decorum and pride. The costume and production design really contribute to the atmosphere, particularly in depicting the crumbling pile, having fallen on hard times. Don’t go in expecting a horror film – it doesn’t even particularly have jump-scares, just a build up of a feeling of uncertainty and dread. As I said at the start, I really appreciate this recent trend in films  – where you question the story unfolding before your eyes because of the point-of-view that you’re seeing it from. Three more recent films; ‘I, Tonya’, ‘American Animals’ and ‘Wild Nights with Emily’ have also played with this format and I think it is incredibly fitting for the times of “fake news” we are living through now. It makes you work as an audience member and teaches you not to just accept the framing of the narrative you are being presented with. You realise that if another character within the story told it from their perspective, you might get a totally different version. Challenging the audience to think and to be a more active participant in the viewing experience is only a good thing, in my books. I look forward to more films that do the same.






Dark River

Year: 2018
Directed by: Clio Barnard
Cast: Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley, Sean Bean, Dean Andrews

Written by Hunter Williams

Following this year’s Lean On Pete, ‘God’s Own Country‘ and ‘The Levelling‘, the withering farmlands are a dramatic staple of 2018’s arthouse cinema. Clio Bernard’s ‘Dark River’ is a standout among this particular niche.

Inspired by Rose Tremain’s novel ‘Trespass’, Ruth Wilson’s Alice returns to her home village for the first time in 15 years after the death of her father, Richard (Sean Bean). The slow and enrapturing photography introduces the vast and unruled lands, underscored by the pounding footsteps of a nearby stampede. Alice wanders the once familiar home, looking hesitantly into darkly lit rooms that spark haunting memories of her father. Bernard’s patience will never let up, allowing the creeping darkness of the woods nearby to infect whatever future the farm may have had.

Ruth Wilson (Alice), once paired with co-star Mark Stanley (Joe), reacquaint themselves with the convincing power of a brother-sister bond that hasn’t been shared for 15 years. They are both excellent performances, using words for spare parts that focus more on the traditional emotional truth often found in the eyes and staging of actors (props to Bernard for distinct direction). Wilson in particular marks ‘Dark River’ as a major work within her filmography, matching the enveloping grief of Laura Dern in Fox’s ‘The Tale’ from earlier this year.

As their rural life is threatened by a housing agent upon Alice’s return, the past begins to overlap their future. Joe is unable to properly hold up the farm in grief of his father, but Alice insists on moving forward. Their conflict boils until not even the farmlands are able to quantify their history. The final third is the kind of bold move that will make it or break it for certain audiences. In this particular case, Bernard takes the typical Sundance fare of underlings returning home in light of a guardians death and transforming it into a disturbing resolution against abuse.

‘Lean On Pete’, ‘God’s Own Country’ and ‘The Levelling’ may be good in their own right, but Bernard is out for blood just as much as her main character Alice is. Which is why the final moments of ‘Dark River’ are as dark as the film suggests. Wilson and Stanley struggle to make eye contact, but their body language says it all: their commitment to each other is not bound by their history or land, so what does the length of the river matter if it’s already dark.

Hunter’s Rating: