Towards the end of Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank (2014), Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) glances at Frank Sidebottom’s band one last time before turning his back for good. They represented his feverish dream of belonging to something extraordinary, but the truth, which had been constantly knocking on his shoulder, could no longer be ignored: he has never – and will never – fit into this beautiful group of misfits. The unpronounceable The Soronprfbs will continue their quest without dwelling on the loss of yet another keyboard player. Jon, on the other hand, will undoubtedly rummage through the memories of this nightmarish yet idyllic period for as long as he shall breathe.

Violently pulled away from the ordinary wonders of adolescence and stripped of the right to a ‘normal’ life, Joy (Brie Larson) is thrown into motherhood under disturbing circumstances in 2015’s Oscar-winning Room. Kept hostage for years in a garden shed, Joy lovingly attempts to create a sense of normalcy for her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), grasping to any mundane memories to comfort not only the kid but herself, yearning for something close to the impossible. Life, to the little boy, is a parallel reality shaped by the cruelty of a man. Jack’s whole world is Room, his birthplace, his home – his captivity. 

Sipping from real-life inspiration, director Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank and Room have very different central plots but share one essential common trait: a painful search for the unreachable. Whilst Jon craves a talent he does not possess to reach the success he’ll never see, Joy wants nothing more than to be allowed to live a plain, regular life, freed from her nightmare captivity. Their wishes are so close they can almost touch them, but they remain cruelly unattainable.


Courtesy of: Film4

It is in Abrahamson’s latest feature The Little Stranger (2018) that his portrayal of longing evolves into a material state. Adapted by Lucinda Coxon from Sarah Waters’ book, the film follows Doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson, yet again) as he is called back to a lavish manor his mother used to work at during his childhood, a place he vehemently idolised. Echoing the eerie nature of Manderley, the old Hundreds Hall is merely a shell of its former glory. Its dilapidation, however, is not enough to break the spell cast on Faraday, whose childhood experience of the house moulded the remainder of his life. Here, the exterior layer of the protagonist’s quest for belonging is undeniably class-related, but as the narrative evolves into a psychological thriller, much more goes into the twisted relationship between man and house.

Abrahamson is a highly versatile director with an expert touch with adaptations. Organically fluctuating between dark comedy, drama and suspense, he adds his magic to whichever source material comes his way without self-indulgence. His subtle direction guides often troubled characters with a compassionate hand, offering the viewer a precious insight into the myriad maladies that can trouble a human mind. Not only that, Abrahamson is also a skilled juggler when it comes to balancing the array of complex subjects approached by his films, building fully formed characters without losing the overall balance of the narrative, and swiftly moving between moments of extreme emotional tension and lighthearted exchanges. 

Courtesy of: Pathé

When analysing the director’s portrayal of existential longing, one does not need to look much further than his final scenes. Abrahamson architects three endings that beautifully reflect the journeys of the main characters, three cathartic resolutions to stories filled with sensitive topics ranging from anxiety to depression to mania to suicide. 

In Frank, Jon’s chaotic descent into the madness that is The Soronprfbs’ creative process culminates in a delicate farewell, a peaceful realisation of his own inadequacy and a loving appreciation for life’s ephemeral nature.

Room benefits from the perspective of a child when dealing with Joy’s excruciating realisation that she will never be allowed a normal life, free from the hellish period she spent under someone else’s torture. By taking his mother by the hand, leading her back into the place that forever scarred her, Jack allows Joy to create a new memory to go back to in times of deep woe. It is the beginning of a healing process that will forever follow their family, a sign of light metaphorically represented by the bunker’s open door. The room may never be completely out of them, but they are certainly – and without any doubt – out of the room.

The suspenseful elements of The Little Stranger allow for a less literal, slightly more allegoric closure. After taunting the audience with the possible presence of the paranormal, Abrahamson returns to the central class conflict to conclude his tale of the gruelling pursuit of social ascension. It is open to the viewer to interpret what truly haunts Hundreds Hall, but the director is wise in his suggestion that what ruined the house and its inhabitants is nothing but the rotting consequences of the inequality that allowed a handful of privileged people to live in such grandeur.

Lenny Abrahamson is enjoying a well-deserved return to the spotlight thanks to his TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestseller Normal People. The Irish director once again seeks inspiration from a book to portray the particularities of human interaction and their cravings, building a millennial-era love story filled with raw, aching pleas for belonging – to someone, somewhere. Abrahamson’s work may not be overtly bold or marked by a distinctive signature-like style, but it is always guaranteed to provide a compelling outlook on the many facets of human behaviour, and how we’re always destined to yearn for something out of reach.