You never go into an adaptation of a Sarah Waters story expecting something straightforward. Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet, The Handmaiden, are all complex and layered tales of deep psychological intensity. Lenny Abrahamson (Room) understood this when he tackled directing this Gothic horror that lives comfortably alongside Remember Me, Turn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House (its latest upcoming remake), and other deliberately paced, unsettling fare.
Abrahamson had each actor wound so tight they were always on the verge of flying to bits. Domhnall Gleeson’s (Goodbye Christopher Robin) pauses and looks each spoke volumes to his motivations and actions. Ruth Wilson (How to Talk to Girls at Parties), alternating between cornered mouse and mother bear, was also utterly transformed into something we’ve not really seen before with a new accent and even a new walk. Will Poulter (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) was a sympathetic and twisted wreck of a man, barely holding onto his sanity after the war and severe injury. And Charlotte Rampling (Red Sparrow), while the least transformed physically, was a walking wound of a bereaved mother and fallen aristocracy.
Writer Lucinda Coxon (Danish Girl) gave each of the characters beautifully trimmed sentences that were loaded with subtext, thanks to sure directing and deft acting. Unlike most Waters’ stories, this is presented primarily from a male point of view and its sense of the supernatural is quiet but very palpable. Waters often plays along this line, but in this tale it is up to the audience to decide what is really going on, at least as it is told by Coxon and Abrahamson.
This is a horror story, but it is aimed at lovers of period drama and psychological terror. It isn’t about cheap scares or buckets of gore. Because of that, it is likely to never find a wide audience despite its excellent craft and delivery. If that is the kind of story you enjoy, make time for it. If you are hoping for highly paced action and scares, move along to something else. This is a movie to absorb, contemplate, and even discuss after the credits roll.