Following on from impressive and individual outings in Frank and The Room, Lenny Abrahamson’s latest project is a Sarah Waters adaption. It starts from the distinct disadvantage of not being the Handmaiden, which is pretty much a model in how to adapt a great book but making it something entirely of its own. But we shouldn’t hold that against this more faithful outing, you’re not going to get strange erotic mannequins, voracious octopuses and downright rude POV shots in every film, and that is just something we have to resign ourselves to.
Stranger follows Faraday, a country doctor, intrigued by the manor house of the Ayres family since a young child, when his mother was a housemaid there and would regale him with stories of their exotic lives. Returning to the area in 1948, he treats Rod Ayres, burned during the war, with electrical stimulation and develops a relationship with Caroline (Ruth Wilson taking a break from tormenting Luther).
The Ayres family are struggling to maintain the house in post-war Britain and its decay is a metaphor for their inability to reconcile their aristocratic habits to the new, democratic reality.
But there is something more sinister plaguing the family than leaking ceilings. A sister of Rod and Caroline’s died there when young. Rod feels a malignant presence and accidentally sets fire to his room when drunk. A young girl is mauled by the previously placid Labrador (as an owner of a black lab, I take umbrage at this slander)
This features less of the overt sexuality of other Waters novels (I haven’t read this book, so can’t say if this is so of the novel). But her novels really excel at exploring class tensions in war, and post-war Britain. The Nightwatch, Paying Guests and Fingersmith might be superb depictions of LGBT love in socially constrained times, but they also use sex as the magnifying lens to examine the minutiae of class divisions. In Stranger, Faraday says he learnt to be ashamed of his working class parents, while Caroline is trapped by the expectations of her class but without the capital to meet them. In some sense they’re coming together in the middle, but that means one is on the way up and one down.
When Caroline agrees to marry Faraday the quiet, dignified doctor takes on a more sinister role and we suspect he might not be as homely as originally portrayed. But he rather incompetent in this role, he is not darkly manipulative and Machiavellian, but rather clumsily desperate. He desperately wants the house & the lifestyle his mother described to him but the more he makes his need clear then the more he is excluded.
The film is restrained and effective at teasing out these tensions but the nods to gothic horror are less effective. This is deliberate, Abrahamson stated he wanted to avoid the genre cliches, but it ultimately suffers from not investing in the sense of doom or malignancy around the house sufficiently. The Ayres family are splitting up their land to sell for property developers, while wanting to retain some of the grandeur – the film suffers from a similar dilemma, not knowing which parts of its real estate to devote to the different functions & not quite serving any of them sufficiently
It recalls some of the great psychological thrillers such as Rebecca and Gaslight, while also making nods to The Turn of the Screw, or the Haunting of Hill House, but with an added original ingredient of a class warfare poltergeist. The ending is worth waiting out some of the slower sequences for, and while a worthwhile watch, it never quite fulfils its multiple ambitions.