Ruth Wilson

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

Advertisements

Dark River

24/2/18

There’s a lot to admire about Dark River, not least its cast list, with Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley and Sean Bean all demonstrating exactly why they’re such acclaimed actors. They deserve our respect. Because this bleak and brutal tale depends entirely on their ability to create empathetic characters, to convey their muted misery with nuance and subtlety. Perhaps inevitably, the film has drawn comparisons with God’s Own Country, with which it shares the stark landscape of rural Yorkshire, but – beyond the superficial, they have little in common: Francis Lee’s debut is essentially a love story, while this Clio Barnard film is a harrowing family drama.

We first meet Alice (Wilson) earning her crust as a migrant farm hand, seemingly happy in her work despite its rigours. She’s confident and competent, well-liked by her colleagues. ‘There’s always work for you here,’ her boss assures her, but she’s leaving anyway. Her father has died; she’s going home to the family farm – the one he promised would be hers one day. But of course, it’s not as straightforward as that. Home is a complicated place, and Dad (a virtually silent Sean Bean) is still a looming presence, despite his recent demise. What’s more, Joe (Stanley), Alice’s brother, has other ideas. He’s been working this land for most of his life, and believes he has the greater claim on it, despite the fact that he’s let the place go to rack and ruin and spends much of his time  drinking away his dissatisfaction.

And besides, it’s almost a moot point. They don’t even own the farm; they’re just tenants. The best either of them can hope for is to be granted the tenancy, which seems unlikely as property developers are already sniffing around, sensing an opportunity to make some money.

The half-buried secrets and unspoken resentments eventually boil over into violent confrontation. Ultimately though, the story feels too slight (and perhaps a little too over- familiar) to entirely convince, and the shot of redemption we are offered at its conclusion isn’t entirely satisfactory. As I said before, there’s plenty to admire here, but perhaps, not an awful lot to enjoy. One thing’s for sure. This isn’t going to figure highly on a list of feature films recommended by the Yorkshire tourist board.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield