Review: The Lighthouse

7 February 2020

In Edgar Allan Poe’s last piece of work, an unfinished short story, he writes from the perspective of a newly assigned lighthouse keeper or “wickie”. Told in a series of diary entries, the unnamed narrator describes how he is keen to be alone, but feels nervous about living in isolation: “there is no telling what may happen to a man all alone as I am.”

When reserved young man Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) takes a job as a lighthouse keeper under the supervision of the older Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) in Robert Eggers’ new film The Lighthouse, he claims that he was attracted to the position because of its decent pay, which would help him to one day build his own home. His irritable and verbose companion, however, remains unconvinced he is hearing the full story. Winslow spends a blur of gruelling days hauling lamp oil to the top of the lighthouse, tending the furnace and scrubbing the floors; chores he feels increasingly humiliated performing while Wake reserves for himself the all-important task of maintaining the light. As the days living together in isolation extend, both men struggle to maintain their sanity: Winslow begins having visions of a mermaid washed up on the shore of the remote island, and becomes fixated on the mystery of the light, housed in the lantern room which Wake will not let him enter.

Co-written by Eggers with his brother, Max, The Lighthouse uses Poe’s open and alluring premise as inspiration for a dark, filthy and perversely comedic chamber piece of hallucination and repression. A hyper-stylised aesthetic plunges viewers into the eerie, miserable atmosphere of a remote island in 1890s New England. Shot in the fishing community of Cape Forchu in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia—an area known for its harsh conditions—means the real discomfort of the actors comes through vividly as they battle their way through heavy rain, strong winds, and a land slathered in mud and soil. According to Eggers, very little of the weather in the film needed to be simulated.

For a film brimming with shots so deliberately blocked and composed, The Lighthouse also contains much which came from the real conditions of the shoot. Dafoe and Pattinson are equally brilliant as their almost dichotomously opposed characters: Dafoe is thunderous and theatrical, as devoted to his role of the elderly seaman as the character is to mythical sea gods. Pattinson shows equal commitment, but his style, perhaps like the enigma at the heart of his character (both in his real identity and his nature as a human being), is more spontaneous and instinctive than Dafoe’s more structured and rehearsed style of performance. On another film, this tension between two actors with vastly different processes might have worked against what was trying to be achieved. However, in The Lighthouse, this plays perfectly into the two characters’ tussle for power and their conflicting understandings of reality and fantasy at the heart of the film.

After only two feature films, Eggers has become known for his meticulous attention to period details—everything from the buttons on Thomas Wake’s waistcoat to the type of cutlery was matched to the film’s time period and setting. These seemingly minute elements of design, Eggers maintains, accumulate to create a fully realised recreation of a historical period. The film’s beautifully rich dialogue was also drawn from American writer Sarah Orne Jewett’s interviews with sailors and sea captains in the late 19th century. This unwavering loyalty to historical accuracy, when combined with elements of the fantastical, produces a fascinating work which is both firmly grounded in a lived reality and unafraid to resurrect ancient supernatural mythologies.

The film uses a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which was used briefly during the window where the film industry was converting to sound between approximately 1926 and 1932. The aspect ratio is almost square because during its short life, additional space was required to store the sound recordings on the film stock itself, which consequently shrunk the space available for the image. Just as the context of early film technology caused this reduction of space, so too do the conditions of the characters’ environment make their lives claustrophobic. Eggers pushes this confinement to the extreme, shooting in black & white and narrowing the frame even further by filming the characters through windows, doorways and surrounded by shadows.

Like Eggers’ debut feature, 2015’s The Witch, The Lighthouse deals with concealed desires—what you are and aren’t allowed to want according to the doctrine of your society—but this film tackles themes of sexuality both above and below its surface. Here, Eggers is concerned with the male psyche, interrogating how embodying an ideal form of masculinity requires a great deal of repression. It is a repression which is harmful to the one who enacts it upon themselves such that their sense of reality becomes warped. Winslow is tormented by his attraction to his colleague, afraid of sexuality, and it seems Wake has a similar desire. This side of the characters’ relationship was at the forefront of the actors’ consciousness; Pattinson stated in an interview with HuffPost that “it always read as a very sensual relationship”.

This is a tale where repressed desires, truth and lies, and fantasy and reality constantly wrestle with each other. The lighthouse ironically assists the navigation of distant, unseen marine pilots but serves merely as the vessel for an inexorable descent into madness for its keepers, who lose their sanity within its walls. Two men must reckon with their isolated existence, but more importantly with what is inside themselves. In the end, though, the sea, the wind and the sky are the only ones really in control.

‘The Lighthouse’ opens in Australian cinemas on February 6, 2020.

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