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'The Little Stranger' — a Darker 'Downton' — Spooks Without Thrills 

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Domnhall Gleason is an actor whose considerable talents are equaled by his artistic discernment. The films in which he appears are eclectic, from The Last Jedi to Peter Rabbit, but they're always interesting, and they're generally very good. Gleason is a lot like post-Twilight Robert Pattinson in the respect that he seems to sign on to projects only that he's personally interested or invested in.

In The Little Stranger, directed by ROOM's Lenny Abrahamson, Gleason plays Faraday, a country doctor in mid-20th-century England. He is a staid and respectable bachelor who has lived his life in the shadow of a Downton Abbey-ish estate called Hundreds Hall. Having grown up poor — his mother worked at Hundreds — Faraday nurses a lifelong obsession with the wealth and status of the Ayres family, for centuries the occupants and owners of the estate.

That obsession persists, despite the fact that Hundreds, at the film's outset, has fallen into disrepair. The lone member of the diminished staff has fallen ill. The badly disfigured Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter) is no match for the estate's finances and is haunted by a spirit that he says lurks at Hundreds and wants him out. The matriarch, Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) is haunted too, in part by the decline of her home but also, much like the Crowleys of Downton Abbey, by the decline of her way of life.

Faraday first comes to Hundreds to treat the maid, but asks if he might return to try an experimental medical treatment on Rod, whose war wounds may be as deeply mental as they are physical. From the start, Faraday is angling to spend more time at Hundreds, a scheme that ultimately leads to the courtship of Rod's sister, Caroline (Ruth Wilson), the sanest member of the family. Caroline is hesitant to progress toward marriage.

Terrible things start happening at Hundreds: A child is mauled by the beloved family dog at a dinner party; Rod breaks down completely and sets his room on fire; Mrs. Ayres becomes convinced that the ghost of her daughter, who died as a child, is communicating with her. The Little Stranger thrums through these episodes with a grim and moody energy. It's not quite a horror film. Nor are there thrills, in the traditional sense, but its mode of presentation is a kind of genteel Henry James spookiness. It is Gothic.

Based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, the film is fertile with literary allusion and symbolism. Its final act — indeed, its final image — may be seen as a twist, but it follows elegantly from the brickwork laid in earlier scenes. There will be room to debate, for example, the extent to which supernatural factors influence key plot points. But that debate enhances, rather than detracts from, this ghostly tale.

The Little Stranger opens Friday at select theaters.


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