BFI LFF 2019: The Lighthouse (2019)

The Lighthouse, by Robert Eggars (The Witch), is a tour-de-force evocation of a time, a place and a sense of growing horror: it’s one of a kind.

Blinded by the Light

by Alexa Dalby

The Lighthouse

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

The Lighthouse defies rational description. Shot in black and white in Academy ratio, on screen it’s dark, grimy and claustrophobic. It’s set in the 1890s in a remote lighthouse off the storm-lashed coast of Nova Scotia. Two lighthousemen arrive for a four-week shift. The older, bearded, clay-pipe smoking Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe), is the experienced boss, he dresses and acts like an old seadog with disgusting habits. He claims the sole right to tend to the light himself. He demeaningly goads his younger, newly recruited assistant Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), who may not be all he seems, and relegates him to the night shift and the heavy chores of stoking the boiler, filling up the oil and cleaning. The language they converse in – when they do, which is only at the dinner table – has the cadences of the archaic, at times poetic patchwork from the works of Herman Melville and the logs of lighthousekeepers of that time.

Two incompatible strangers cooped up together and vying for position – the volatile dynamic between them ebbs and flows as each tries to master the other. Their solitude leads to strange fancies or delusions. When Ephraim learns that Tom’s previous assistant met a mysterious fate, an the atmosphere of fear and paranoia is stirred up. Images of the sea, its gods, its creatures, its superstitions and its power and mystery accrete until they hypnotise. What is real, what is fantasy or hallucination – even who is real? What is in the past and what is in the subconscious? What is the secret of the light? Fuelled by alcohol, and when it runs out, kerosene, remarkable things happen. Its reality is shifting, uncertain and probably too horrific to contemplate, a feeling that persists long after the film ends.

The Lighthouse premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and screens as the Cult Gala of the BFI London Film Festival on 8 and 9 October 2019.>

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