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Lighthouse: the art of darkness

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson star as isolated duo charged with maintaining a spinning light and a foghorn

30 January, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse

THE LIGHTHOUSE
Directed by Robert Eggers
Certificate 15
☆☆☆☆

THE grotesque workings of the human mind and the world it creates when starved of basic stimulation provides the starting point for Robert Eggers’ two-hander masterpiece.

A lighthouse, miles off shore and worth a similar TripAdvisor rating as the Overlook Hotel, is the location.

It isn’t a cushy posting for the duo charged with maintaining a spinning light and a foghorn groaning out across rough seas.

Salty old lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is the rock-living lighthouse captain. He has a shanty-like turn of phrase – his dialogue encapsulates everything one imagines a Victorian mariner might blather on about – and also nurtures an unhealthy attachment to the light at the top of the tower. It’s as if Sauron’s evil eye, flashing out over Middle Earth, has had the same effect on this weather-torn sea lore-fearing captain.

Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) is the greenhorn, told he has a month to work as the other Tom’s hand before heading back to civilisation with a decent wage.

He discovers the man he replaced was driven mad, lured by sirens and other sea myths, leaving the viewer in no uncertain terms that something distinctly fishy is afoot.

Dafoe, splendid in a beard seagulls could happily raise offspring in, is stupendous: the pitch perfect script rolls out of his month like Atlantic breakers.

The eerie, other worldly atmosphere is helped by being shot in black and white – it gives it a grimness and makes it easy to transport yourself back to the steam ship era.

Pattinson runs through a gamut of facial expressions in a challenging role, only briefly let down by the odd, wobbly accent he employs that flits from place to place and at times is rather off-putting, until a back story emerges that sets him in place. In parts his performance is more of a standard that would see him struggle to pass an audition for a supporting role in a church hall’s am-dram.

There are references to the Greek legends in here – never-ending tasks, vital organs providing feasts, angry sea gods – and plenty of spooky salt-soaked spectralness.

At its heart is the idea of isolation and very strong liquor being enough to drive you into dark, dark places. This is wonderful modern myth-making, psychologically testing and packed with shocks.

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