Sometime in the 1890s. A rock on the edge of New England. Two men are keeping an isolated lighthouse. Let’s call them Thomas and Ephraim – because this is what they call themselves, though we quickly learn not to trust anything they say. Thomas is in charge, using his position to regularly bully Ephraim, and insist that only he be allowed to visit the light at the top of the tower.
Pretty soon, the men lose sense of whether they’ve been there for days, weeks or even longer. As a storm rages outside (and sometimes inside, as dripping water from the ceiling starts to gather on the floor), they are unsure whether they will ever be relieved. They are stuck with each other’s company for an indefinite period of time.
There are shades of Waiting for Godot here, and of Steptoe and Son. The surreal photography, which is often unclear whether what we are seeing are the fevered fantasies of one of the protagonists or is happening in real life, has a touch of the young David Lynch. Above all, there is a sense of Gothic novelists like Edgar Allan Poe, depicting how isolation and imprisonment lead to increasing insanity. The isolation that we see is arguably worse than that of an individual encased in a tomb. Thomas and Ephraim are isolated together, forced to endure the hell of other people.
And yet for all these possible comparisons, the film is like nothing I have ever seen before. I expect that some people will hate it, and I can fully understand why. On top of the general lack of plot, it does like to draw attention to itself. Filmed entirely in black and white with an almost square aspect ratio, it uses many strange camera angles with many shots filmed almost vertically upwards or downwards. If you’re on board, this adds to the feeling of claustrophobia. If you’re not, I can see this being very irritating indeed.
Thomas and Ephraim fight and they sing sea shanties and they bicker and they fart and they wank and they have visions of fucking mermaids, In one scene they dance, first separately, then together, locked in an intimate embrace. Just as it looks like they might kiss, they square up and start to throw punches. At other times they chase each other with axes and knives and bury each other alive.
As all this is happening, one thing remains constant. Throughout the film, each of them drinks clear and clearly potent liquid from a bottle. They seem to be in a permanent sense of drunkenness or hangover, which only adds to the sense that something could kick off any minute and that extreme violence – or extreme calm – is just around the corner.
One strange phenomenon from my viewing this evening. We had about 5 different people at 5 different times taking a toilet break. In each case, I thought “here comes the walk outs”. Then a few minutes later, they came back. It was as if people were happy enough to watch till the end but could only take it in digestible chunks.
A final word about the acting. Robert Pattinson is excellent in one of a series of challenging roles that he’s taken since his teen idol heyday. But its Willem Dafoe who steals the show, delivering the embittered Thomas‘s lines in a cod Irish accent just this side of old sea dog parody. At times Thomas does not converse with Ephraim, but declaims blank verse soliloquies. It can be very scary.
I wonder how this would fare as a stage play. This would certainly lose some of the spectacular effects derived from the cinematography and a great and threatening music score, but as a two hander in an enclosed space it could lend itself to theatre.
The funny thing about all this is that the original plan was to go and see exactly how bad Last Christmas is. I can’t imagine a film as unlike Last Christmas as this one. Which could be the knockout argument for giving it a go.