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Film review: 'The Little Stranger' 

A haunting and outright haunted Gothic tale, Lenny Abrahamson's "The Little Stranger" has the appearance of a fairly traditional haunted house movie — including a memorable manor in which to stage its spooky affairs — but as the film goes on, its ambitions turn out to be a good deal larger.

Adapted from Sarah Waters' 2009 novel, "The Little Stranger" takes place in the English countryside shortly after World War II. Doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) has been called to examine a nervous young housemaid, Betty (Liv Hill), at an imposing Warwickshire estate known as Hundreds Hall.

Faraday grew up in the nearby village while his mother worked as a servant at Hundreds, and he has fond memories of the place from his childhood. Of particular importance was the day he was once allowed to attend a lavish garden party there, and even then he was quite taken with the aristocratic opulence of his surroundings. Observing an existence far removed from his own, he was a bit envious of those who were able to inhabit it and the carefree lives he imagined they'd have.

But he returns to find that the once grand estate he remembers as a boy has fallen into disrepair, and its surviving residents aren't faring much better, despite their best efforts to keep up appearances. The lady of the house is Mrs. Ayres, (Charlotte Rampling), still grieving the death of her eldest daughter decades earlier; her son Roderick (Will Poulter), a former pilot left both physically and mentally disfigured in the war; and daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) who'd moved away but has been brought back to help care for her brother.

Making return visits to check up on Roderick, Faraday continues to ingratiate himself with the family and soon makes himself an indispensable part of the household. Over the course of these repeat visits, the bright but weary Caroline gradually becomes the object of his affection.

As their bond grows stronger, strange incidents begin to occur with increasing regularity: From a cocktail party that takes a sudden, violent turn, to ringing bells and strange markings appearing on the walls. Whether or not these events are supernatural in nature, they lead to a gradual unraveling of the Ayres family.

A throwback to psychological horror stories like "The Haunting" and "The Innocents" (there's a bit of "Wuthering Heights" in there as well), "The Little Stranger" narrows in on the class politics of the novel. The social upheaval of post-war England takes its toll on the film's characters, making clear the ways that Hundreds Hall and the Ayres clan are remnants of a decaying way of life.

The screenplay by Lucinda Coxon takes its time, allowing the uniformly strong performances to take center stage. Gleeson is good, playing Faraday's outward friendliness while letting us see his more subtle manipulative edge. But Ruth Wilson is the standout as the fiercely independent Caroline, eager for a life outside Hundreds' walls, but resigned to the idea that it might not ever be possible.

The slow-build also provides plenty of opportunity to appreciate Simon Elliott's magnificently gloomy production design. Everything about Hundreds Hall seems to have a greenish tinge; you can practically smell the mildew and feel the chill its crumbling walls can't quite keep out. All good haunted house stories require a memorable setting, and Elliott delivers a pretty great one.

"The Little Stranger" is quieter and more understated than advertising suggests, playing its scares close to the chest — and is all the more unnerving for it. There aren't any jump scares or computer-generated apparitions, but Abrahamson nonetheless succeeds in conjuring up a pervading sense of dread and quiet menace. Those who prefer their frights a little more overt might come away disappointed, but I found that the chill his film provides lingered even longer.

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