Firstly, I loved Room, I really loved The Handmaiden and I have always loved a good period ghost story in the vein of E.F. Benson’s How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery or William Hope Hodgeson’s The Horse of the Invisible (don’t you want to read that just from the title?), so all things considered: the director of the best film of 2015 adapting a book from the author of the best film of probably the last FIVE years, set in a haunted, dilapidated old manor in post-war England…it’s no surprise that I should really love this movie.
The story follows the grave young working-class doctor Faraday who is called to the rundown Hundreds Hall and falls for the lady of the manor Catherine, but as their relationship grows more troubled, the ghostly manifestations of the house grow more malevolent.
I’ve not yet read any of Sarah Waters novels (I have an unread copy of Fingersmith on my shelf) but I am beginning to develop a huge respect for her work since adaptations of her novels have led to two movies that I immediately wanted to see again, so dense and tricky were they, so full of lines that once spoken, hang, glinting in the scene like the reveal of a loaded gun, heavy with implication and inference. Many of the basic story elements here will be familiar to viewers of The Handmaiden, especially the theme of class and importance of architecture (the production design in both films is paramount and incidentally fantastic). Both films feature characters from opposite sides of the class divide, one hoping to inveigle themselves into the upper echelons, the other to extricate themselves from them. Both films begin with the main character arriving at a great house, the long journey up the winding drive to the house through a fairy-tale dark wood, and coming to know the denizens of the sinister home, who all seem to be a little crooked and ill, like Brideshead Revisited with a sadistic glint in its eye. Although this film is far more cynical and less satisfying than The Handmaiden. Where the latter enthralled with how measured and detailed every facet was, all whirring and ticking like the workings of an intricate machine of entertainment, The Little Stranger is chill and ambiguous, but just as menacing and cunningly constructed, like reaching through a veil to reveal a different scene from the one you expected.
The film lacks the Handmaiden’s cloying sex appeal, replaced with a ghostly chill and arch style, with uncomfortable close shots interspersed with uncomfortable far shots, long periods of stillness and deep concentration broken with indecent violent outbursts.
The film is stunningly impressive in its construction, possibly the best made film of 2018 (but what does ‘best made’ mean anyway), with a strange headiness and use of the medium that demands a querying audience and boasts some fabulous performances, with Ruth Wilson as the particular standout, battling through arch lines and wrought emotions with a perfect balance of tragic dignity and upper class absurdity, she renders the character beautifully sympathetic.
I feel that, although not in the same tier yet (a second viewing may augment that, this is a film that demands to be appreciated in its fullness), this may be this year’s Personal Shopper, a strange, perplexing labyrinth which is technically best described as a ghost story, but to do so is to miss every other reason to go see it.