The Little Stranger: Death Duties, by David Bax
At the center of an imposing mansion, a grand staircase spirals upward in broad swoops, drawing the eye to a skylight fixed in the center of the ceiling. When the sunlight beams down through the window, illuminating the drab and dust of the disrepair below, it seems almost like a portal to the heavens. Certainly Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), the protagonist of Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger, adapted from the novel by Sarah Waters, sees it this way. Even though the house is decades past its prime, he is still on foreign shores within it, having grown up in the long shadow the home and its inhabitants cast on the surrounding townsfolk. When it rains, though, the skylight turns cloudy, reflections of the drops and streaks running down the bannisters and turning everything gray. It’s a reminder that, no matter how dearly Faraday wants to ascend through that portal, gravity doesn’t work that way.
After years away spent studying medicine, Faraday has returned to the village where he grew up to take charge of the local practice. One day, he is beckoned to the mansion, known as Hundreds Hall; a maid has fallen ill. Once back in the place he idolized as a youth, he can’t help but ingratiate himself to the remaining members of its occupants, the Ayres family. There’s Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), the proud but hermetic matriarch; Roderick (Will Poulter), grievously burned and limping after the Second World War; and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), the youngest of Mrs. Ayres’ living children. Quickly, Faraday and Caroline become friends and the doctor finds himself drawn back to the aristocratic life he coveted as a boy.
Faraday’s way into this world, though, comes not through Caroline but through Roderick. In an attempt to ease the former pilot’s suffering (and as a convenient excuse to keep showing up at Hundreds Hall), he suggests a series of electricity treatments to stimulate the atrophied muscle beneath the burns. This would seem to be an indirect reference to 18th century scientist Michael Faraday and his experiments with electromagnetism, even though he never dealt with the rejuvenation of damaged tissue. Perhaps we’re meant to see the mansion itself as a kind of Faraday cage, a conductor that nonetheless protects everything inside it from the currents coursing through its exterior. That is, until Faraday shows up and breaks the shield.
It’s probably worth mentioning, at this point, that The Little Stranger is a horror movie. Though the scares are probably too late to arrive and too few in number to satisfy genre acolytes, the clues as to where the story is headed come early. There’s an oppressive aura of dread and impending doom in the house. Multiple characters even comment on it. Betty, the maid (Liv Hill), can’t tell the doctor what’s troubling her other than a general bad feeling and Roderick specifically predicts that something bad is going to happen shortly before something very bad indeed does happen. Abrahamson isn’t coy about suggesting the source of all this; the Ayres had another child, Susan, who died young. Is she haunting Hundreds Hall or is she a red herring? Did the real evil arrive when the miserable but ambitious Dr. Faraday walked through the doors?
Then again, it’s not as if the people already living there are angels. This is a movie about class, as becomes apparent early on when Roderick complains about the British equivalent of the estate tax and Faraday is too far removed from its particulars to even have an opinion. So it should come as no surprise that the Ayres and their ilk are capable of a casual but deeply wounding verbal cruelty toward the new interloper in their midst.
None of it, however, deters Faraday from his intoxication. With every morsel, kernel or acorn of the upper crust he experiences, he yearns for more. He’s just as much the servant as Betty but he’s either blind to reality or willing to happily accept his role. Sooner or later, though, he’s going to be confronted with the fact that he’ll never travel up that shaft to light to a higher plane of existence. Who will be more destructive then? The ghost inside the walls or the trespasser bouncing off them?