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USA 2019
Directed by
Robert Eggers
110 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Lighthouse, The

Synopsis: A lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), and his assistant, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), struggle to maintain their sanity while living on a remote New England island in the 1890s.

The story of The Lighthouse is something that you might think has been adapted from Herman Melville (who gets a knowing nod), Joseph Conrad or perhaps Edgar Allen Poe – solitary, isolated men pitted against themselves and the elements, beyond the probities of civilized society, descending into madness. To quote Winslow The Lighthouse is a “tall tale” that recalls any number of cautionary 19th century sea-faring yarns but one that grows surreally strange as the boundary between reality and imagination dissolves and finally collapses into grisly horror.

Although The Lighthouse is a dark (literally so) and demanding film that will dampen any frivolous spirits, director and co-writer (with Max Eggers whom I assume is his brother) Robert Eggers deserves full marks for the quality of his film. Not only does it do ample justice to the above-mentioned literary references, its form deftly fits its content. Two elements are especially significant in this respect. One is the cinematography of Jarin Blaschke (who has been deservedly Oscar-nominated for his work) which being both in black and white and projected in a near-square ratio makes the film look like a classic British documentaries of the 1930s such as Robert Flaherty’s Man Of Aran. The other is the striking (again, literally so) sound design that for me recalled Denis Villeneuve's marvellous 2016 film about extra-terrestrial visitation, Arrival. This may well have been a conscious choice on Eggers’ part but either way the sense of something foreboding and extraordinary is captured by the mournful lowing of the lighthouse’s foghorn, whilst the clanking of metal on metal suggests the prison-like nature of the two men’s sojourn and the cawing of the sea-gulls, a malevolent Nature.

Technical achievements aside it is, of course, down to Dafoe and Pattinson to make this two-hander work dramatically and this they do handsomely. Dafoe, who has made a career of playing outsider characters, is in his element as the crusty old sea dog who takes great satisfaction in lording over his inexperienced assistant. Pattinson appears initially to be a less substantial presence but as the film progresses and the men begin to reveal themselves to each other Winslow emerges from his protective shell, the narrative becoming about him much more so than Wake.

The evolution of their relationship is the heart of the film and both actors work well together in physically demanding roles (particularly for Pattinson) to bring this about.  My only criticism, and this is of Eggers rather than the players, is that Winslow’s breakdown occurs a little too quickly. After all the two men were only on the island for a month and few days weren’t they?  Perhaps Winslow needed to be more fragile or Wake more overbearing to make the former's descent into paranoia more affecting.  

Between the antipodes of art and entertainment The Lighthouse leans heavily towards the former. It's original, adventurous and challenging.  If you admired Justin Kurzel's recent True History of the Kelly Gang it will be a film for you.




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