I read ‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters over seven years ago before I started my blog and reread it this month when the film adaptation was released in the UK. Set in the Warwickshire countryside in the late 1940s, Dr Faraday is called to Hundreds Hall, a once grand now derelict stately home where his mother once worked as a maid and which he has long viewed with fascination since he was a child. Occupied by the Ayres family for more than two centuries, the house is now in decline with just Mrs Ayres and her two adult children Caroline and Roderick struggling to manage the estate on their own. Roderick sustained serious injuries during the war and when Faraday offers some treatment for his leg, his regular visits to Hundreds Hall see him become increasingly more involved in the family’s affairs.
The main cast includes Domhnall Gleeson as Dr Faraday, Ruth Wilson as Caroline, Charlotte Rampling as Mrs Ayres, Will Poulter as Roderick and Liv Tyler who is a brilliant supporting actress as Betty the maid. Director Lenny Abrahamson also worked on the film adaptation of Room by Emma Donoghue, and while Hundreds Hall is far more spacious than the confines of Old Nick’s tiny shed, the atmosphere is equally claustrophic. This is partly because of what appears to be an increasing number of supernatural events at the derelict mansion, which Mrs Ayres believes to be caused by the presence of her deceased daughter Susan, but also because of a significant amount of class tension in the context of post-war austerity Britain.
The scene where Faraday takes Caroline to the dance is one of the most vivid in both the book and the film and what follows immediately afterwards serves as a crucial turning point. Up until this event, Faraday comes across as a relatively inoffensive character if a little awkward and dour in personality, but then it becomes clear from the way he behaves towards the Ayres family, especially Caroline, that he wildly misinterprets the feelings of those around him and everything he does and says suddenly seems much more sinister to the reader or viewer. Although some of the subtleties of Faraday’s inner monologue are lost on screen, Gleeson plays the role in a brilliantly unsettling manner, gradually revealing the turmoil underneath the surface of his calm expression and how his humble origins and changing social landscape have shaped his view of Hundreds Hall and the Ayres family. The final scene in which he roams the abandoned mansion alone is particularly chilling.
Overall, the film is very faithful to its source material including its ambiguities and there are excellent performances all round from a strong cast. The gothic tone is more melancholy than truly frightening which may not appeal to all horror fans, but if you enjoy creepy mysteries, it is well worth seeing whether you have read the book or not.