the little stranger
- Review by Lauren O’Hare
For me, my reaction to The Little Stranger changes depending on which way I read the story. As an exploration of class, gender, and the long-lasting effects of one’s childhood, that is when it becomes most fascinating and satisfying for me. As a ghost story however it is less so, and left me feeling dissatisfied, though the more I thought about that dissatisfaction, I realised that wasn’t entirely a bad thing.
The Little Stranger directed by Lenny Abrahamson, is set in the world of 1948 when the decline of Big House Culture was sweeping Britain. Visually, it feels familiar, with its colour palette always slightly dull, creating a detachment between character and surroundings. Dr Faraday, played by Domhnall Gleeson, travels to Hundreds Hall, where he enters the lives of its inhabitants, the Ayres. The Ayres family have lived In the Hall for more than two centuries. Once a working class boy, and now a middle class man, his relationship to Hundreds Hall is told through the different circumstances he has had, from outsider, to insider. However, it is apparent that he is only an insider to this world, in his adult life, due to the decline of the very culture he once admired and looked up to, a decline that gives him great distress. Amongst all this, as he becomes closer and closer to the inhabitants, specifically the adult daughter of the family Caroline, played by Ruth Wilson, his psyche becomes more and more intertwined with the house and the memories associated with it. He becomes a more unreliable narrator.
A moment, that truly floored me, was one which had little to do with the overarching plot. It was when Faraday, whom interestingly we never learn his first name, and Caroline are walking in the grounds of Hundreds Hall, as new houses are built on their acres of land. Faraday is upset by the change, whereas Caroline relishes in it, yet the two come from opposing worlds. Just prior to this moment, Faraday and Caroline had been discussing their families and childhoods to some extent, when Faraday said that he was only ever taught to be ashamed of his family. It was a lightbulb moment for me in understanding his character. His parents wanted so much more for him than they could give him, that it separated him from his own circumstances, isolating him from his family, and resenting it. It is what drove him to ‘advancing’ in life, yet he will never belong to either working class culture, one he grew up in yet cannot claim, and middle class culture, one he has entered, yet can’t claim, due to the shame and embarrassment he feels towards his origins. A recurring image of a childhood rebellion throughout, cements this in between state of not belonging to either of these worlds, only adding to our understanding of Faraday’s fractured identity further.
One review I read, asked whether the little stranger, named in the title, was a ghost or the patriarchy. This is a perspective I found very interesting, in a story where three of the main characters are women, and two of them men, the domineering effects of male ordered power is pervasive. From the lack of father figure in the Ayre family, and in Dr Faraday’s treatment of the Ayre’s only son, whom is both physically disabled, as well as suffering from the effects of PTSD, an environment of toxic masculinity is presented to us in the lives of the men. The story is also told from a white male perspective. This toxicity in Faraday translates into his relationships with women, as they are largely confined to small places of inferiority of thought, voice and action, regardless of their social status. Yet the most active character in the film is Caroline, who seeks to see past her circumstances, though in a genre where women are expected to suffer for circumstances separate to them, I’ll let you guess if she achieves her dreams. Though, through Faraday’s and Caroline’s relationship the dynamics between the systemic issues of sexism and classism are explored, in a nuanced way that sees the individual as part of the problem, while displaying them as victims regardless of whether the system is against them, or one which benefits them.
As a ghost story, it is one that exists mostly on a flatline, with severe spikes throughout. Though the real interest of the film was one of human issues, which shed light on the inherent trauma of the ghost story narrative, reminding myself as a viewer that it is within ourselves to become a dangerous force.