The Lighthouse

 

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An unflinching study of two men locked in psychological conflict.

 
Lighthouse, The

Robert Pattinson

 

This extraordinary work introduced me to the cinema of Robert Eggers since I did not see his debut feature The Witch (2015). Co-written by him and his brother Max, The Lighthouse could be made to sound like a natural follow-up since it is a dark tale built around an intense situation. The setting throughout is a lighthouse off the coast of New England where in the 1890s an experienced keeper, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), is joined by a new assistant. The latter (Robert Pattinson) introduces himself as Ephraim Winslow and acknowledges that in taking on this post he is seeking to save his wages so that he can move on. From the outset it is apparent that Wake, who insists on looking after the light himself, is a domineering figure who takes pleasure in putting Winslow to work in a punishing and demeaning way. Cut off from the outside world, these two will be isolated for four weeks, quite long enough for friction to develop with a force that encourages a descent into madness. In the event bad weather extends their time together.

 

The Lighthouse is a film of integrity, a work tailored uncompromisingly to its needs: it is shot in black and white using an old-fashioned ratio, it features only Dafoe and Pattinson for the most part (there is also a brief role for Valerila Karaman who appears in dream or fantasy images as a mermaid) and it is relentless in giving the audience no respite from experiencing fully the claustrophobic world of Wade and Winslow. In many ways what has resulted is a tour-de-force. Both actors give beautifully judged performances that eliminate any sense of standard melodrama: they bring out touches of underlying humour at extravagant moments, relish dialogue that carries echoes of Herman Melville and ensure that the conflict between these two men has real edge. Furthermore, they are matched every step of the way by the film’s brilliant soundtrack which starts with repeated foghorns and integrates other atmospheric natural sounds with a superbly realised music score by Mark Korven.

 

Given all this, the reader might expect my rating to be in line with that of the many critics who have raved about this piece. That I am not able to share their enthusiasm despite all the quality work on display may be in large part a matter of taste. I do think that at 109 minutes the film is overlong and its oppressive nature (you feel the weight of it) becomes something of a problem. But the real issue here is my dislike of films which end up by being vague and obscure and thus seem to lack meaning and point. As the tale proceeds Winslow to some extent turns into Wake (it did make me think in passing of Bergman’s Persona), but the madness that engulfs one or perhaps both of them fails to become compelling because I cannot see what one is meant to make of it. If what we see involves hallucinations as part of a mental breakdown, then The Lighthouse is one kind of film. But if, instead, it asks us to accept a truly supernatural element it falls into another category. The film fails to be clear on which side of the divide it lies, but either way it leaves me unsatisfied. If it is a psychological tale of madness then it is a weakness that, with limited background information to help, neither actor was able to make me care about the fate of his character. On the other hand, if it is to be judged as more akin to a supernatural horror movie then that aspect seems too limited to work well for fans of that genre. But those who are able to savour the mystery for its own sake may well align with those who greatly admire The Lighthouse.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, Valerila Karaman.

 

Dir Robert Eggers, Pro Rodrigo Teixeira, Lourenço Sant'Anna, Jay Van Hoy and Youree Henley, Screenplay Robert Eggers and Max Eggers, Ph Jarin Blaschke, Pro Des Craig Lathrop, Ed Louise Ford, Music Mark Korven, Costumes Linda Muir.

 

A24/Regency Enterprises/RT Features/Arts & Labor-Universal Pictures.
109 mins. Canada/USA. 2019. Rel: 31 January 2020. Cert. 15.