Part gothic ghost story, part social commentary on post-Second World War Britain, Lenny Abrahamson’s film is a tense psychological (or is it supernatural?) study of class and the change wrought by war.
Adapted from Sarah Waters’s 2009 novel, it stars Domhnall Gleeson as Faraday, a youngish doctor in a Warwickshire village just before the National Health Service. He lives alone and spends his working hours tending to the rural poor. Then one day he is summoned to Hundreds Hall, the stately home his mother had worked at as a maid a generation before.
Faraday is haunted by the memory of attending a fete at the house as a little boy in 1919. He sneaked inside, where he was overcome with awe at the grandeur of the house. He felt a desperate desire for a part of this privileged life.
Nearly 30 years on he finds the house in a sorry state. Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter), the son and heir, is a war-damaged RAF veteran with catastrophic burns, a very gammy leg, and a drinking problem to cover his anxiety. His sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) was called back from a successful career in the Wrens to look after Rod. Her stunted existence has cut her off from the modern world she longs to be part of. Their mother, Mrs Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), is clinging to the past, gliding around her crumbling home in faded silks.
Faraday has been called to tend to the young maid, Betty (Liv Hill), who he quickly realises is not ill at all but wants to go home — she can sense something bad in the house. There are disturbing noises and mysterious markings; the service bell rings from empty rooms. Is there a malevolent force hanging over this family?
As events escalate, the excellent performances combine with piercing sound effects to gradually reveal, or suggest, the intense emotions which seem to be driving the violence.
As Faraday gets more involved with the Ayres his discomfort in his own class position comes into focus. His former friends in the village — now labourers — no longer accept him; the upper classes will never see him as one of their own. And all he learned at grammar school was to be ashamed of his working class parents.
At a time when everything is changing — the advent of the NHS, the mass building of council houses and the beginnings of comprehensive education — Faraday, like Mrs Ayres, seems stuck in the past. And as a viewer in the present day when all those gains of the postwar boom are being dismantled, The Little Stranger feels like a little reminder of the sick world we thought we’d left behind.