The Lighthouse feels like it’s one of the more important films in the London Film Festival. I went into, as with most of the films in the festival, completely blind. Beyond the two-line summary in the programme, I’d not watched a trailer, and nor had I read anything about it.
The film is basically a two-hander folk horror film with Willem Defoe playing the grizzled old lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake, and Robert Pattinson playing Ephraim Winslow. At the start of the film a steamship deposits them on the small unspecified island that we assume sits somewhere off the New England or Nova Scotia coast.
Alone on the island, they will spend several weeks there until they are relieved by the next crew. As they arrive, they barely exchange a word with the outgoing crew.
Winslow is new to working on a lighthouse, and he’s trying to do everything by the book – for example not drinking on duty. Wake breaks the rules, farts and generally orders Winslow around. The dialogue is minimal, and at first, I couldn’t even place Wake’s – coming perhaps from Cornwall via North America.
Winslow, we learn, has spent time in the Canadian wilderness, although has left his job with trees.
On his first night on the island, Winslow discovers a carved mermaid hidden inside his mattress by some previous occupant. This begins the spiral downwards into a world where we’re never entirely sure of the truth of what we’re seeing.
Winslow develops a powerful fascination with the light at the top of the lighthouse, but despite what the rules say, Wake keeps that to himself. What’s happening up there? Is Wake almost subservient to the light itself?
The film is shot in a near 4:3 format in black and white, and the sound is terrific, with the island’s powerful foghorn providing an almost ceaseless accompaniment. But Marek Corven’s score is also vital in creating the mood.
You probably don’t want to know too much more about this film before you see it. Just know that the performances are first rate, and that the overall piece from director Robert Eggers, working with his brother Max on the script, is just a delight. Indeed the mellifluousness of Wake’s language, lifted from books of the period, just adds to the overall tone of a beautiful piece of cinema.