All Gothic fiction requires a big house, a crumbling manor, think Dracula or Frankenstein with unruly peasants at the door with their torches. Before they’re invited in, of course, they’ve got to wipe their feet. Here we have Hundreds Hall, and like its master, second world war pilot, scarred and shambling Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter) the centre cannot hold and everything flies apart. He’s been nursed by his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) who might once have been a glamourous debutante with a bright future, but is now spinsterish and resentful of what may have been. Mrs Ayers (Charlotte Ramping) straddles two worlds. That of before the first world war when Hundreds Hall was at its peak and masters and servants knew their place. Now a large part of the house has been closed. And they are down to one serving girl, Betty (Liv Hall).
Dr Farraday (Domhall Gleeson) is the central character, the book’s narrator. Like Mrs Ayers, he too straddles two worlds. He’s one of those peasant types. His mum worked as a servant in the glory days and he was brought as a boy to pay homage to their master’s largesse. They were hosting a parting in the grounds. The house was out of bounds, but he’d been sneaked into the kitchens with his mum and filled with cake. A day to remember, but he’d left the grey of the servant quarters and entered the main part of the house, come out of his underground hole and into the light. He’d stolen an acorn from a picture. The daughter of the house had watched him, silently.
The little girl, the little stranger had died as a girl in an accident, but she’s still there in knocking sounds, and scratching noises and spontaneous fires and all kinds of malarkey associated with poltergeist activity. But the little stranger has a big canvas to play with. Post-war guilt and class.
Ruth, it’s generally agreed, is the best of them all. Trying to totter on to the inevitable, but she too wonders if their only servant Betty will leave them for some god-awful factory and processing line. Then she’d be left to do all the heavy lifting herself.
Roderick rallies that there’s nothing they can do. Labour with their 75% death duties are killing them off. He accuses Dr Farraday of being one of them. Such accusations are, of course, bats.
Mrs Ayers reminds him that he should know his place, but in a nice way. Servants weren’t servants in those days, but bits of grit she made into pearls.
Dr Farraday is a strange fish. He admits her mother worked herself to an early grave to give him the education (and accent) he needed to get on in life, but he was ashamed of his parents.
Light the touch paper and watch it all burn.