I don’t imagine there are many reviews of the English ghost story The Little Stranger that will begin with a reference to the American spirit saga Star Wars: The Force Awakens (though the films are not entirely disparate: the former is highly atmospheric, while the latter is entirely so). But as it happens, shortly after seeing Stranger, I took a United flight that was showing Force, and was reminded once again why I so enjoy Stranger star Domhnall Gleeson: the man is able to get so much across without ever changing his expression. In Force, his General Hux is Grand Moff Tarkin to Kylo Ren’s Lord Vader — the cool, competent military man who has an army to run and operations to oversee, but who must make room for the mumbo-jumbo of his priestly counterpart. (I’ve read where people like to ship Force’s Poe and Fin, but I pick up a lot more relational tension between Hux and Ren.) It’s all in the eyes and the posture: his simultaneous contempt for Ren’s childish rage, envy of his status as Snoke’s beloved, and uncomprehending fear of his mystic power.
I first noticed Gleeson’s gift in 2014’s Ex Machina; there, the static expression communicated stunned admiration for what his boss had wrought, horror at what his boss was doing, and deep affection for what his boss had made. In 2015’s Brooklyn, he got to project the sort of quiet Northern European adoration for Saoirse Ronan that contrasted (and struggled to compete) with his rival’s brash American longing. And Gleeson is probably why I liked Goodbye Christopher Robin more than most: he was the perfect choice for a witty playwright driven to shell-shocked silence who finds his voice again by telling children’s stories in the middle of nowhere.
In The Little Stranger, Gleeson plays Faraday a doctor in post-World War II England who finds himself called to the home of the local gentry. Though it might be better to say he’s called to the house belonging to the local gentry; his opening narration begins by mentioning the place and not the people, and there are few accidents on display here. (Really, just about everything director Lenny Abrahamson’s film offers is pleasingly precise: the framing, the music, the quietly unfolding plot, and perhaps especially the understated performances.) He tells us he’s been here before, as the child of an employee, invited to share in the aristocratic grandeur for one lovely afternoon. The hosts are full of kind noblesse oblige, and it sets young Faraday’s head spinning, to the point where he can’t help but feel slighted when their pretty young daughter obscures him in the photo taken to mark the occasion.
In the aftermath of the war, however, the Ayres family has fallen on very hard times indeed. The man of the house was horribly injured in both mind and body while serving his country, but it’s more than that. The aristocracy itself is crumbling: businessmen want their lovely lands for housing, and doctors like Faraday are on the rise, their technological wonders commanding more admiration and respect than titles and grand houses.
Faraday is drawn to help this faded family, and they’re grateful for his kindness. But there’s only so much that his scientific skills can do — because, it seems, the old house is haunted, and has it in for everyone inside. (The pretty daughter mentioned earlier died not long after the fateful photo was taken, and that was just for starters.) He finds himself taking another, more personal approach, and that’s when the awful fun begins. Through it all, Gleeson keeps everything moving while hardly moving himself, his impassive countenance drawing the viewer into the mystery, now obscuring, now revealing. It’s a moody delight to behold.