LFF Review #1 – The Lighthouse [63rd BFI London Film Festival]

THE LIGHTHOUSE [Cult Gala in association with Time Out]

Director: Robert Eggers

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson

UK Distributor: Universal Pictures International

Genre: Horror | Drama | Thriller • Year: 2019 • Country: US • Running Time: 110 minutes • Aspect Ratio: 1.19:1 • Image: B&W • Language: English

Director Robert Eggers’ anticipated follow up to his breakthrough supernatural horror, The Witch, is a stark, atmospheric study of isolation, jealousy, paranoia, obsession, and man’s slow descent into madness, shot in striking black and white 35mm and echoing the early silent expressionist horrors of the 1920s.

Drawing on the works of Moby Dick creator Herman Melville and Maine novelist Sarah Orne Jewett – as well as the original diary entries of 19th Century sailors and lighthouse keepers – this nightmarish pyscho-horror stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as Ephraim Winslow and Tom Wake, respectively, two men tasked with maintaining an enigmatic lighthouse on a remote and unforgiving island off the coast of New England in the late 1800s.

The Lighthouse is a slow burning film that cleverly draws its horror from the banality and monotony of the day to day tasks the characters are faced with. In this strange servant and master style set-up, Pattinson’s reluctant newcomer Winslow – fresh from a logging job in Canada – is forced to undertake the most arduous and thankless tasks, meanwhile Dafoe’s grizzled old sea-dog Wake sits obsessively at the top of the tower, barking orders, waiting for his next meal (and drink), and never allowing Ephraim near the mysterious light, much to the latter’s anger.

Ephraim must brave the elements on this totally exposed island – almost constantly battered by wind and rain – as he drags heavy wheelbarrows of firewood over the uneven terrain, paints the tower with precarious support, scrubs the chamberpot, and attempts to fix the rather hazardous looking machinery. Eventually the sluggish spiral of back-breaking work, bouts of raucous drinking, disturbing hallucinations and Wake’s unsettling anecdotes and darkly comic recitations begins to take its toll and the lines of reality are slowly blurred.

The design work on show is exceptional and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke captures it all in haunting, tactile monochrome. Not only does he employ a series of close ups and unusual angles to highlight the psychological themes, he makes excellent use of the tight, square format aspect ratio to add an extra sense of confinement and unnerving claustrophobia. Composer Mark Korven’s eerily discordant score deserves special mention too for ramping up the tension a further notch.

It is also worth noting that everything we see in the film is built from scratch – including a 70ft working lighthouse constructed on a remote volcanic rock island at the north tip of Nova Scotia – which makes things all the more impressive knowing the cast and crew had to face many similar conditions to those witnessed in the film.

Of course The Lighthouse will not be for everyone, and many will undoubtedly be put off by the dark humour, gruesome visuals and numerous fart jokes, however this is rich, sensory filmmaking at its best. Pattinson and Dafoe are both on top form and Eggers and Blaschke do a superb job in attacking the senses, conveying a real sense of authenticity, and bringing this beguiling, hallucinatory tale very much to life. It’s wildly theatrical, immersive and expertly crafted.

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