Lenny Abrahamson

The Little Stranger

22/09/18

Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is a curiously enigmatic and unsettling tale, and its transition from page to screen is profoundly satisfying. It’s a ghost story without ghosts, a horror film without real scares. And yet an uneasy sense of impending doom pervades the piece, and the tension in the cinema is almost palpable.

It’s 1948, and Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) has returned from years of study and army-medic work to his Warwickshire hometown. He’s ill at ease here though, all too aware of his humble origins, and still obsessed with Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked as a maid.

Called to the Hall to minister to an ailing servant, Faraday finds himself drawn to the Ayres family: the ailing matriarch (Charlotte Rampling), who’s haunted by memories of her dead daughter, Susan; Roderick (Will Poulter), who’s struggling to cope with both the physical injuries and the mental stress he’s brought with him from the war; and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who – tasked with looking after them both – is bored and isolated in her idyllic country prison. But the relationships they forge are as unhealthy and demanding as the mouldering ancestral home, and it soon becomes clear that things are not going to end well.

This is a fascinating film, directed with the precision we expect from Lenny Abrahamson, following the award-winning Room. I like the careful slowness of it all, the repressed emotions that reverberate and shimmer. Domhnall Gleeson’s performance is wonderfully understated, the clenched jaw and tense body language testimony to just how much this man has to conceal: his past, his class, his raging desire.

Ruth Wilson is utterly convincing as the gauche Caroline Ayres, an unhappy blend of self-doubt and entitlement, both poor and rich, privileged and trapped. Of course, the whole film is a kind of commentary on class, on what it makes us and how we respond to it. And it’s as illuminating and disturbing as the shadows haunting Hundreds Hall.

The muted, misty colours of the post-war landscape mirror the shadowy ambiguities of the story, where we’re never quite sure if what we’re seeing is supernatural or not. It’s frustrating, all this teasing, but that’s no bad thing: it only adds to the film’s potency. Truly, this is an enthralling film.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Room

11/01/16

Emma Donoghue’s Room is one of my favourite books of recent times: a terrifying tale of kidnap and abuse, rendered somehow hopeful and life-affirming by its young narrator, Jack. The boy has no idea that the tiny, locked room he lives in is a prison; he thinks it is the world. And the world, as he knows it, is small but full of love. After all, Ma is with him all the time, and she is always good to him.

But it’s a worry – isn’t it ? – when a favourite novel is adapted for the screen. There’s no way a director can ever realise every reader’s vision and, when you’ve constructed clear and absolute impressions of the characters and their environs,  disappointment seems almost inevitable.

Almost. But not quite. Because Emma Donoghue is a bona fide artiste, and she did not merely sell the rights to Room to the highest bidder. Instead, she waited for an offer that allowed her to write the screenplay herself and, oh, am I glad she did. Because Room the movie is just as heartbreaking and affecting as its source material and, although there are of course changes made to suit the form, it seems that very little is compromised. ‘Room’ is just as weirdly claustrophobic, joyous, repellant and homely on film as it is on the page.

Jacob Tremblay, as Jack, is a revelation. He’s expressive and appealing and extremely natural; hats off to director Lenny Abrahamson for eliciting this performance from such a  young actor. And Brie Larson is marvellous too, delivering a subtle but curiously intense and credible portrayal of Joy, a young woman who has, against such overwhelming odds, managed to create a happy childhood for her beloved little boy.

OK, so maybe there are a couple of scenes that could have teased out some more tension (when Old Nick drops Jack, for example), and it would have been nice to have seen William H. Macy’s part developed into something more, but these are minor quibbles in the face of an affecting and engaging film.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield