I'll be kind to this film in this respect: Lenny Abrahamson didn't set out to play by the usual (or at least de rigeur) rules that govern a lot of creepy-old house stories, as this is about 90% of the time a drama with some touches of very staid and not-all-there romance, and then in the last third he and his crew try their hand at a couple of sequences where some supernatural entity attacks a couple of the characters left in the Hundred's (sic) Hall in this small provincial English town (which you know is far from most civilization as characters talk of London like it's some far away distant land, and this is in the 1930's I think).
The studio who put this out may have been between a rock and a hard place: how to sell a movie that has the veneer of Gothic Horror, but doesn't have the passions of a Jane Eyre (I believe Focus Features, which also put out the 2011 Eyre, put this out too), or Crimson Peak (which I now love even more for just GOING FOR IT as far as a massively extravagant stylistic experience). And for some reason, perhaps due to the bankability(?) of Domnhall Gleeson - who I like a lot generally, especially now as General Hux in the new Star Wars - it was released on more screens than it should have been at an inopportune time. I wish it had done better in some capacity, maybe at an earlier time in the year when people might not be busy with the Back to School season, or with less awards-fare competition, but.... it may just be that it's "Alright" quality was going to leave it struggling. Not to mention that poster; like, what the hell IS that? Terrible.
Anyway, The Little Stranger isn't as dull as you've heard, at least if you stick with it past its opening half hour. Except for a somewhat nutty and make-up overloaded performance from Will Poulter, it starts off as dry as an eraser-board. Maybe some of it is due to the mood of this emotionally tight English feeling of the early 20th century, or the place this Hall is at in general, but it is hard to get into this mood at first with the color scheme on the gray side (which, yeah, again it is England on any given day, I get it). Once the plot really kicks in as far as it goes, that this Dr Faraday becomes ensconced with this family, most especially Ruth Wilson, and they showed a bit more of Faraday's backstory of his attachment (or his unspoken terror) of the Hall from when he was a boy, then I started to want to know more about what was going on and where it goes to.
And with Gleeson here, he's... good, but something I can't really vocalize or think right now holds him back somehow. That may be by design, either in the writing or from Abrahamson, but he is *so* reserved that you suspect he may be hiding something, until it is beyond the point of caring what it may be about. He may be both entirely right *and* entirely wrong for this part, if that makes sense, as a doctor who is supposed to ignite something in the Wilson character - will she leave this place, maybe marry, find some other path in life than staying in this house, and she actually has a more interesting arc in that respect than he does -but ultimately there's complications if nothing else from the Hall itself... or the perception of things going on in it. So I'm not going to say he's miscast, as he does what he can, but maybe it's some misdirection somehow, or that if there was something more in the book this was based on it never got off the page.
Oh, don't get me wrong, I'll still be happy to see a performance from him that is just 'Okay' than by many others who don't rise up to the challenge. And Poulter, Wilson and Charlotte Rampling are all doing excellent work from what they're given (Wilson particularly near the end reminded me why I grew fond of her difficult character on The Affair). And the Hall itself can't help but he an intriguing location to shoot in. However, when this reaches into its last third, I can't help but feel its dips into horror take away from what would be a more... I'm not sure, emotionally complex given how much the filmmakers try to make it more about the characters than about the kind of schlocky jump scare horror effects that go out to the popcorn audiences. In other words, I get why it does become a horror movie in its last third, but something feels lost in the process.
This may seem like a higher star rating than it deserves, but I didn't dislike this film. I think Abrahamson is too skilled at making good scenes and some impactful images (i.e. Poulter burning that bookcase, the dance scene) for it to be a total disappointment. That said, after the one-two punch of ROOM and the underrated rock and roll trip FRANK, it feels like a step down in some way that's hard to articulate even after stepping out of the theater.