Review: THE LITTLE STRANGER (2018)

Stifled characters imprisoned in a crumbing country estate battle demons both seemingly imaginary and mental in director Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger.

The penultimate novel in Waters’ oeuvre and a move away from the hidden queer stories in period Britain, The Little Stranger is a more radical take on The Turn of the Screw-esque haunted house (see also: haunted family, or nothing at all?) stories popularised in throughout early to mid-20th century. A class-driven family drama set in a restrictive post-war Midlands during political and social upheaval, literary fans were riveted by the evocative ambiguity of the storytelling, if not delighted with the move away from what has now become Waters’ trademark of ‘lesbian historic romances’.

Dysfunctional aristocratic family, the Ayres: Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling and Will Poulter encounter Dr. Faraday, played by Domhnall Gleeson, an aspiring provincial doctor haunted by his repulsion of his own class position and childhood memories of Hundreds Hall, the Warwickshire estate, in its heyday. His ‘in’ with the Ayres family is his faltering and nervous exchanges with Caroline Ayres, played by an expertly cast Ruth Wilson, who is helpless in her Sisyphean task to repair the exposing cracks of the family’s reduced circumstances. Same goes for Will Poulter,  as Caroline’s veteran brother Roderick, physically and emotionally ravaged by service in the Second World War while the serene Charlotte Rampling is the coldy officious Mrs Ayres, a woman preoccupied in longstanding grief. The house decaying around them serves as a living tool of torment for each of the major players, from the admiring outsider to the intelligent but “unfortunate” Caroline.

Sure to frustrate the non-book readers who will not have been party to Waters’ trademark vivid scene-setting and characterisation, Abrahamson attempts to make up for this with sumptuous production design and cinematography choices. Certain moments are so crisp in beaming sunlight while others are murky and gloomy as the characters creak around the dilapidated family property that is as much oppressive as it is impressive.

I personally loved The Little Stranger’s more politicised backdrop, one oft-forgotten in favour of more patriotic mid-century stories that are ripe for historic writers. The advent of the NHS and a housing estate on the edge of the Hundreds estate is just as horrifying to the characters as the supposed presence of a poltergeist, expressing a societal anxiety of monetary upheaval and the destruction of the upper classes as they knew it.

Much like the original text, Abrahamson’s cinematic retelling of The Little Stranger (2018) is a claustrophobic and at times, grueling chamber piece, a classic psychological interplay that the director  showed considerable talent in handling while adapting Emma Donoghue’s Room for the screen. Marketing the film as an horror-inflected ghost story is bound to confuse those expecting some “quiet-quiet-bang” moments that have suffused the genre lately, but The Little Stranger does attempt to truly unsettle in its latter half, even if it takes a while to get there.

“It’s a curious, wanting thing”: Sarah Waters on screen (so far)

Tipping the Velvet

If you’ve ever seen Tipping the Velvet (2002) or read the novel, there’s a good chance it’s seared in your memory (it certainly was on mine, discovered as a secretive sixth form read). Outrageous, camp, brave and filled with vaudeville charm, the scope and scale of the story had the hallmarks of a Victorian romp. It emerged so fully formed into book lovers’ and queer lives that it was almost impossible to imagine that it was someone’s debut novel. It demanded attention, and attention it got.

Starring Keeley Hawes, the doyenne of Spooks at the time (and some really cool music videos for 90s faves Suede and James) and Rachael Stirling, shocked Daily Mail readers and delighted many. I’m still in a bit of disbelief that the BBC took a chance on this story, and for not compromising on some of the more eyebrow-raising aspects. Screenwriter Andrew Davies, no stranger to adapting period stories to the screen, can most certainly relied upon to emphasize the more sensational aspects of a story. The section that includes the dastardly Diana Letherby (Anna Chancellor) will never not be thrilling.

Watch out for a small role for future Sarah Waters’ lead, Sally Hawkins too!

Fingersmith

With Waters’ third novel, Fingersmith, praise was rightly showered on the author for this ambitious tale of betrayal, love and greed, once again set in Victorian England.

The bravery to upend the narrative of a significant chunk of the novel will remain a literary ‘water-cooler’ moment for many, and the TV adaptation in 2005 had the unenviable task of recreating that shock factor on screen. Even Hitchcock might have struggled with such a twist! Leads Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy have incredible chemistry and are individually able to convincingly convey facades of naivety and cunning at various points of the story, vital for making the highly charged plot seem remotely plausible.

That challenge neither daunted lauded Korean director Park Chan-wook, taking the source material as a major inspiration for his latest film The Handmaiden (2016), which keeps all of the clever tonal and plot shifts intact, despite relocating the setting to Japanese-occupied 1930s Korea.

Affinity

Waters’ second literary outing is perhaps less-remembered for its televisual counterpart, but is worth a watch for completists all the same.  Affinity is a hearty nod to Wilkie Collins that won Waters the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1999, and the TV adaptation aired on ITV at Christmas nine years later. Once again with an adapted screenplay by Andrew Davies, Affinity (2008) a thriller set during a time when Victorian spiritualism was both feared as a dangerous view into other worlds as well as merely a fun palour game jaunt.

Though atmospheric and moody and lavished with a £2 million budget (quite a lot in the telly days before the likes of Game of Thrones),  Affinity doesn’t give viewers the time to really get to know the two characters – Anna Madeley (Margaret) and Zoe Tapper (Selina) – so much so that when the famous Waters’ twists take their turns, they don’t really feel like the discombobulating rug pull they did in the novel.

The Night Watch

The Night Watch (2006), which on the whole I believe was poorly served by the constraints of a feature length format and running time, was impeccably cast once again, starring some of the most high profile British actors working today,  including Jodie Whittaker and Claire Foy. Anna Maxwell Martin, who can never be accused of choosing ‘safe’ roles, is a swaggering ghostly figure haunting the streets of postwar London.

Sarah Waters’ once again experiments with the form, telling a story at the end and working its way back, and in the visual form it’s a striking and unnerving device to see unfold. The period is impeccably recreated, a struggle as the adaptation had the difficulty of depicting London before and after the Blitz, but on the whole succeeds in demonstrating how the ravages of war obliterated a city and relationships within it.

 

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Review: THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST (2018)

Some films make you angry, some films make you cry, and some films make you squirm, and some of the best make you feel them all. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is one of those films.

It’s a hard sell to a mainstream audience I suppose – the story of a young LGBT+ person’s experience of gay conversion therapy – but it’s a vital watch for anyone in doubt that these issues are no longer prevalent and affect lives daily. Like Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, also out in cinema, both are period stories that starkly reflect the fractured and disturbing prejudices and methods of discrimination that still pervade throughout in the US today. It’s easy to factor in that this film was made during the 2016 presidential election, a putrid time that uncovered a swath of uncertainty and fear about how minorities, including the LGBT+ community, would be treated in Trump’s American nightmare.

The director of TMOCP, Desiree Akhavan first came to my attention with her writing/directing debut, Appropriate Behaviour (which may still be on Netflix if you have a quick search), a funny and seemingly personal tale of an Iranian-American bisexual person navigating the single life and familial relations in New York. The non-tropey bisexual on film is such a rare find, so Appropriate Behaviour was something of a revelation to me. I couldn’t think of anyone more suited to take on this new story of another LGBT+ experience.

The 1993-set TMOCP is adapted from the novel of the same name by Emily Danforth, and the film takes the core plot of Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz), who after being caught having sex with her best friend on prom night, is shipped off to a Christian camp called God’s Promise to be cured of her “same-sex attraction.”

The camp is an eerie place of fake smiles and hushed tones, where even Cameron’s cassette tape of The Breeders is even too risqué for consumption. We watch in disbelief as Cameron’s and the other camp members’ “sins” are explained away as symptoms of prior traumas. Being over indulged with sports by a parent is weaponised as tool for shame. Thankfully, the film creates moments that allow for humour, piercing what could be unbearable into a more manageable, if still shocking, world to witness. There’s a rendition of 4 Non-Blondes ‘What’s Up’, as much an anthem for confused discontentment now as it was in 1993, that raises genuine smiles. And in case you wondered, ‘Blessercise’ is a real thing.

Moretz is excellent, her eyes are incredibly expressive as they scan the rest of her therapy group as she tries, or perhaps hopes to not, see herself in them. At times we’re unsure if the ‘therapy’ is finally working on Cameron, just as we are party to the devastating affects of what is essentially, sanctioned torture. My joy at seeing Jennifer Ehle (please cast her in everything please) was short-lived due only to her stand-out depiction of Dr. Marsh, a softly spoken Nurse Ratched, rigid in her belief of being on the right side of morality.  Co-stars Sasha Lane, winningly called Jane Fonda,  and Forrest Goodluck are Cameron’s cool-for-school kindred spirits as they come to terms with just how they got to God’s Promise in the first place and if indeed, they will ever get out as the same people. I particularly enjoyed Cameron’s assigned roommate, Erin, who easily could have been used simply as a mode of diffusing the tension, but like everyone in this film, gets a chance to show many facets of themselves.

Though the ‘doctors’ of God’s Promise attempt to reduce everyone down to their own  unique behavioral ‘iceberg’ diagrams, the characters constantly, with varying degrees of success, break free from their icy surroundings and assigned gender/sexual  straitjackets. I was reminded also of Todd Hayne’s Safe, another film that dealt with clinical psychologies and enforced communal life in the 1990s.

The final wordless scenes in the film are as optimistic as we can hope to expect in a tale that so rooted in realism, and though we cannot know what the future holds for these characters, the morning sun has never felt more liberating.