Lenny Abrahamson on The Little Stranger

Lenny Abrahamson, the director of Frank, Room and What Richard Did, discusses the challenges of bringing Sarah Waters’ class-conscious ghost story, The Little Stranger, to the big screen

Feature by Joseph Walsh | 13 Sep 2018
  • The Little Stranger

“All good ghost stories are about something else,” begins Irish director Lenny Abrahamson when talking about his latest project, The Little Stranger, an adaption of Sarah Waters’ Booker Prize-shortlisted novel.

He’s right to note that this text, like many quality spooky yarns, concerns more than the supernatural. Like Waters’ novel, Abrahamson’s film is a ghost-story, period and psychological drama weaved into one that potently explores a turbulent period of change in post-war Britain. “The novel is very clever, and has great depth,” says Abrahamson. “That got rid of that squeamish feeling I would have if I were making a film about things that go bump in the night.” Abrahamson admits this was a project where he could have his cake and eat it by “getting to play in the playground of genre but also deal with those insights about what it means to be human, and how we are as people.”

The setting of The Little Stranger is a crumbling English manor house, Hundreds Hall, owned by the family matriarch Mrs Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), who lives with her two adult children, Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and the battle-scarred former pilot Roderick (Will Poulter) who manages the land. When their maid, Betty (Liv Hill) becomes ill, Caroline calls in the local doctor, Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson). His visit brings back childhood memories of when Hundreds was in its heyday before the war. The good doctor's arrival stirs something lurking in the house, something dark and menacing.

Following on from Abrahamson’s Academy-Award nominated Room, some were surprised that he would opt for a period set ghost story, but as he explains, there are themes in Waters’ novel that run throughout all of his work. “They tend to be about people who are at odds with themselves or feel a degree of exclusion,” Abrahamson explains.

So, what was the draw? Partly, it was the technical challenge, especially the chance to play with the expectations that come from a story that dabbles in the genre. “With genre, there is a gravitational pull of tropes and conventions and it was about the challenge of not toppling over into those.” But this challenge alone wasn’t enough. Abrahamson found himself drawn to Faraday, who he describes as an “abrasive character, who’s not overtly winning, but he’s very moving.”

Faraday's appeal to Abrahamson lies in the fact that the character embodies one of The Little Stranger’s very British central themes – class. Faraday’s mother once worked in service as a maid at Hundreds Hall, and despite now having a middle-class profession he still yearns to be accepted as an equal by the Ayres family. “Class is the key to the destructiveness of the relationships that are there, and Faraday’s internal struggle is largely to do that,” explains Abrahamson. “Faraday recognises the injustices of the society he grew up in, but at the same time he can’t help but want to be lifted out of his class to what he sees as a more glamorous world.” Class struggles today operate in more insidious ways, but in The Little Stranger they are potent, and Abrahamson wanted this theme to operate on a level that would resonate with those not familiar with the woes of the British class system. “Faraday has a universal relevance because we all have those destructive aspects that we would rather not recognise but do determine our lives,” he explains.

The broader context of The Little Stranger touches on how Britain was going through profound changes at the time. The film opens in 1948; a year earlier, India declared independence, heralding the collapse of the British Empire. The population was becoming more multicultural with the influx of migrants from around the world, and as is mentioned in the film, on 5 July 1948, the NHS was created. Abrahamson sees The Little Stranger as a drama that’s “a study of that moment of British history,” more than a traditional horror film.

As the film explores, this moment in Britain’s history was one that saw a tremendous shift in power, where the once-dominant landed ruling class became an anachronism, with the working classes now asking for a fairer share from those who sought to dominate them. While class is one of the themes of The Little Stranger, Abrahamson sees it as a metaphor for any system of power. “It could be race, or gender, or any number of things that impose a hierarchy on society.” He adds: “What is interesting is how those that are in the position of power are also damaged by this dynamic as well. But more obviously and more directly, those who are disadvantaged are damaged by it to a greater extent.”

Does he think audiences will be surprised by The Little Stranger, given that those unfamiliar with the book could easily be forgiven for thinking it is more of a typical haunted house horror? “There are images and expectations of a ghost story with a crumbling house,” he explains. “You have to work hard to make sure that audiences don’t get lulled into those expectations and then feel they aren’t getting what they expected.”

We then discuss what he thinks fans of the book will think: “I always really want to produce something that is the essence of the novel, but I am also aware that I have a responsibility towards the film.” He jokes: “It’s also not like it’s Star Wars where there’s a degree of hysteria among the fan base.”

Released 21 Sep by Pathé