Sarah Waters

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

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The Night Watch

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24/05/16

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Based on Sarah Waters Booker-nominated novel, Hattie Naylor’s intriguing adaptation of The Night Watch relates a series of interwoven stories, pitched against the setting of the Second World War and its aftermath. The play’s ingenious set comprises two large turning circles, the outer rim moving anti clockwise, the inner in the opposite direction. The two circles are constantly in motion and they effectively mirror the unfolding story, which, as in the novel, is told in reverse chronological order – the play’s first half is set in 1947; in the second, events skip back to 1944, to London’s ‘little blitz’, before finally arriving in the carnage of 1941. It’s a brilliant piece of staging and of course, this being the Royal Exchange, it has one final trick up its sleeve – happily, not the water feature that has been rather overused in recent productions, but a simple and effective device that it would be a crime to reveal.

The central protagonist, Kay  (Jodie McNee) is gay at a time when lesbianism is still considered an aberration. During the war years she works as an ambulance woman and afterwards finds it hard to recover her sense of purpose. Her former partner, Helen (Kelly Hotten) is now living with Julia (Lucy Briggs-Owen) herself once a girlfriend of Kay’s. Meanwhile, Duncan (Joe Jameson), who was jailed as a conscientious objector during the war, reconnects with Robert (Ben Addis), now a journalist, who is shocked to discover that his old friend is lodging with their former gaoler, retired prison officer, Mr Mundy (Christopher Ettridge). This first half throws out a lot of questions about the various characters and how their stories relate to each other, and many of those questions remain unanswered until the second half, when the pace accelerates, until we finally hurtle  into the single momentous event that kicked everything into motion.

The performances here are exemplary and there’s something quite mesmerising in the way the actors seem to float constantly around the stage on the rotating circles, allowing us to see them from every possible angle as they reveal more and more about what makes them tick. The evocations of different settings with the use of a few simple props are masterfully done, while sound designer, Dan Jones has done a great job of bringing the soundscape of the Blitz to vivid life.

This is an assured and satisfying production that succeeds on many levels. Enjoy.

4 stars

Philip Caveney