2 (out of 4)
Lenny Abrahamson’s last film Room was the highlight of film in 2015 – perfectly performed, emotionally harrowing and cathartic as both a profound drama and a breathtaking thriller. Reuniting with Domhnall Gleeson four years following Frank, Abramson's latest The Little Stranger is afflicted with quite the identity crisis.
Though not an outright tonal blunder, The Little Stranger has no gauge on its genre. Originating with Sarah Waters' celebrated 2009 novel and continuing to the adapted screenplay by Lucinda Coxon, the eventual materialization cycles precariously between frights and melodrama. The dissonant film is a middling, staid and stodgy comedown following Abrahamson's brush with Oscar prestige three years prior, largely owed to Brie Larson's revered lead performance.
From the vantage of direction, The Little Stranger is esthetic and elegant – the cinematography switches up many times in a given scene – wide angle, soft focus, handheld and everything in between keeps the film clear of lethargy on the visual frontier. Where The Little Stranger suffers is its severe shortage of narrative momentum – I’m all for well-developed central figures at the expense of structure or action, but there’s scarcely any plot outside of the stale romance of Gleeson's Dr. Faraday and Ruth Wilson’s Caroline Ayres that justifies the inflated runtime.
The cloak of horror the film bestows upon itself is the primary detriment. The sour courtship of our main characters is prudently presented but the jolts of gothic dread in ghostly jump scares – needlessly provided after every thirty minutes of dreary drama – aren't remotely warranted even with a centuries-old British mansion as the major locale. Either commit to angry spirits of dead relatives or tell a forlorn tale of a forced, wearied love affair; the textured gloom of The Little Stranger could aid either choice. Perhaps this storytelling divide works appropriately in the source material but the discordant elements are incongruous when translated into film.
The supporting cast (chiefly Charlotte Rampling and Will Poulter) settles into the weathered period ambiance and well-tuned dialects. But whereas Wilson's blunt charisma endears as it should, Gleeson's distant, impersonal nature as the subdued leading man is as underdeveloped here as the typically typecast roles of his past. The characters themselves still bewitch us far more than the story, which ends with an unforgivable shrug. Just as it flopped at the box office, The Little Stranger will suitably remain unknown.
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