The constraints of the class system are given a gothic, ghostly twist in Lenny Abrahamson’s (Room) finely crafted, gripping adaptation of Sarah Waters’s 2009 novel.
The setting is the dilapidated edifice, Hundreds Hall, in 1948, a Warwickshire mansion whose former splendour and dark, empty, oppressive interiors can be read as a metaphor for Britain’s post-war austerity and the nation’s sense of loss. “This house works on people,” says Mrs Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), the forbidding lady of the manor and it certainly seems to have a profound effect on Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a young country doctor whose childhood relationship and fascination with Hundreds is reignited when a house visit brings him to treat the only maid there. What he finds is someone not ill, but lonely and fearful of living and working in the decaying house.
Each of the remaining family inhabitants are trapped by the house or some strange presence within it. Mrs Ayres’s son Rod (Will Poulter) is an angry, former RAF pilot who is physically and mentally battle-scared. Acting as master of the estate, he is burdened by the task of trying to find a way to make money. His mother, distant and austere, is still mourning the loss of her favoured eldest daughter, Suki, who died of diphtheria at the age of eight. Melancholy hangs over the household with suffocating heaviness. The only reasonably stable person is the hardworking, responsible, surviving daughter, Caroline, brilliantly played by Ruth Wilson. Faraday is drawn to the genial but isolated Caroline and their relationship slowly develops into a loveless, awkward romance.
Faraday — we never know his first name — is an enigma, a misfit. Gleeson embodies the repressed, wooden man of science with cool authority. His precise, overly rigid posture, neat moustache and clipped accent suggest an affectation and aspiration of social class. A series of repeated flashbacks reveal his working-class background — his mother was a maid at the house and, during a garden party, he was caught by Suki removing a decorative acorn from a picture frame. Is he in some way responsible for the unleashing of the supernatural, sinister goings on? Bells ring in unoccupied rooms, a visitor is mauled by a dog and red scrawl appears at the back of a wardrobe.
As he inveigles his way into the family, his motives appear unclear. Are his feelings towards Caroline genuine or are they based on an obsession with the house, a desire to be accepted within a class system and an idealised way of life, despite its crumbling structures and the external societal changes taking place.
This is not a traditional frightfest. Instead, Abrahamson’s mystery drama creates a subtle, deep sense of malaise and uncertainty throughout. The end is surprising and leaves you with questions, well after the credits roll.
Click here to read our interview with film director Lenny Abrahamson