'The Lighthouse': Cannes Review

By Lee, Marshall | Screen International, May 19, 2019 | Go to article overview

'The Lighthouse': Cannes Review


Lee, Marshall, Screen International


Robert Eggers follows up The Witch with a starkly-compelling Expressionist drama

Dir: Robert Eggers. US. 2019. 110mins

Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch is a tense, claustrophobic psychological thriller about two 19th-century US lighthouse keepers stuck on a godforsaken rocky islet. It is all about being hemmed in – by bad life choices, by maleness, by regulations, by the stories we tell ourselves, by the walls of a storm-lashed cottage and tower. Shot in an expressionist black and white that harks back to cinema’s earliest years, The Lighthouse provides a marvellous chamber-drama platform for two actors, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, who seize the opportunity with gusto.

As in The Witch, realism and attention to period detail build authority in a world made of rock, iron, wood, glass and little else

Laced with literary references, imbued with nods at film history, vintage photography and the maritime culture of the 19th century, The Lighthouse lacks much of the crossover potential of Eggers’ debut, a 2015 Sundance period arthouse-horror breakout that took around ten times its $4 million budget at the box office. It has a certain casting draw, but Eggers has made a deliberately artsy thriller, with black-and-white photography and 1.19 to 1 aspect ratio acting. The flipside of this is that niche distributors and cineaste audiences wary of The Witch’s horror label need have no such qualms about The Lighthouse.

Arguably there are three main characters in the film ­ – the third being the lighthouse itself. It’s obvious that the sturdy tower and the cottage it is linked to via a strange tilted corridor is not computer enhanced (apparently the set, built on a cape in Nova Scotia, withstood three storms during filming). As in The Witch, realism and attention to period detail build authority in a world made of rock, iron, wood, glass and little else. There’s clearly plenty of research behind everything from the keepers’ thick wool and oilskin clothes to the US Lighthouse Board manual which insecure rookie Efraim Winslow (Pattinson) quotes to his superior, wrinkled old sea dog Thomas Wake (Dafoe), soon after the two men have been left on this rocky, fogbound island for what is supposed to be a four-week turn of duty.

Wake, a drinker, talks in a rough but poetic language gleaned mostly, an end-title informs us, from the works of 19th-century Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett, but with plenty of echoes of the Hawthorne of ’Moby Dick’ and the Shakespeare of ’The Tempest’. …

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