(2019: Australian Release February 2020)
If, like us at The Varnished Culture, you’ve pictured yourself tending a lighthouse on a breezy, picturesque island away from the rat race; climbing the steps with a dainty lantern; reading by the fire at night while the rain tinkles against the windows, this film will give you something to think about. [And finishing that novel, as in Poe’s unfinished lighthouse story, or else something like an action / adventure / comedy, perhaps called “The Big Heist” – Ed.]
We saw The Lighthouse with a theatre full of excited film students who tittered and crackled popcorn until two minutes into the film, at which point they were sobered into a silence, from which they did not emerge until they stumbled from the theatre, wondering if being an accountant in daddy’s firm wasn’t so bad after all. For if watching was strenuous work, filming The Lighthouse must have been gruelling. The island off the coast of Maine on which the lighthouse is situated is freezing, blustery, eternally wet. It’s the 1890s. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a newcomer to the trade of ‘wickie’, lugs coal, digs the frozen soil, cleans the foghorn, scrubs the floors, paints the bricks, tends the sump, hauls oil and empties the chamber pots. The senior wickie, old sea captain Thomas Wake (Willem Defoe) gleefully barks orders and tortures the sullen, almost silent Winslow. Wake alone actually tends the swooping light, which is a kind of deity.
All is black and white, rainy, rocky and oneiric. From the drawn-out, existential pensivity of the men’s arrival at the foggy island for a four-week (extended) stint, the pace changes to an eccentric, Beckett-like battle between the two miserable misfits, a dance of demented, doomed souls, watched by an evil one-eyed seagull and a ghastly mermaid (Valeriia Karaman). The beam of the lighthouse circles, the men climb the spiral staircase (an example of the golden mean, the only beauty in the movie). The fresh water source is poisoned and Winslow has to join Wake in drinking rum and ultimately, kerosene, day and night. The real, supernatural and delusional become increasingly entangled, as bad weather keeps the relief boat from landing.
The Lighthouse is un-classifiable, brilliantly acted, and unique. Reminiscent of Joseph Losey’s magnificent 1960s power-struggle film “The Servant” (also in black and white) and Eugene O’Neill’s 1912 bleak play “The Iceman Cometh” (published in 1946) and overlaid by themes from Coleridge’s “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner”, it is as dazzling and dangerous as a 1,000 watt globe.