REVIEW: The Lighthouse
– By Allan Lear
I fall slightly outside the catchment area of The Slaughtered Bird, being not from Liverpool but from the Wirral. Yes, I’m still a Merseysider, and I’m very proud of my nearby city, but I am not a Scouser; in fact, I am what the Scousers would call a “plastic” or, if I got on their nerves, possibly a “bad wool” or variant thereon.
My locality is important in the context of this review because national lighthouse policy was made only a mile or two away from me. Hoylake, on the Wirral, used to boast a wooden lighthouse but it burnt down in a storm in 1765. As a consequence of this tragic fire, it was made illegal nationwide to sell homebrewed alcohol from a wooden lighthouse. True story.
Another true story – or, at least, apparently based on one – is The Lighthouse, a story of two men trapped on Smalls Island lighthouse, miles from land and cut off by a terrible storm. The Smalls Island lighthouse is twenty-five miles from land; to give you a reference, the English Channel is twenty-two miles across at its narrowest point. These people are marooned further away from civilisation than even David Walliams will swim for charity.
As the premise suggests, the film is effectively a two-hander, though there are a few very minor characters – little more than background artists with a handful of lines, to be honest – who help set the story up at the beginning. From then on Mark Lewis Jones and Michael Jibson are on their own, occupying a leaking, ancient lighthouse with nothing to do but keep the light, fish, and get properly on each other’s nerves. Lewis Jones plays the gruff, taciturn senior man who has spent his life away from civilisation on succession of beacons, and Jibson plays a jittery junior man pushed towards a frantic, overbearing Christianity by a recent tragedy. Both characters are called Thomas, because they were both called Thomas in real life. Though my first thought was that they could have pleaded dramatic licence and changed one name for clarity’s sake, on second thoughts I applaud the filmmakers for staying authentic; since there are only really two characters, the fact that they have the same name doesn’t really impact on the film’s comprehensibility – when one says “Thomas”, he generally means the other one. This historical quirk of nomenclature also adds to the sense of isolation and loneliness in the film. The two men sharing one name seem even more cut off and alienated from the mainstream of humanity, almost as though they are two alter-egos of one man rather than separate individuals in their own right (and in many lesser films this would no doubt have been shoehorned in as a twist).
The Lighthouse has two fine actors in the leads, and they both play their roles to the hilt. Both men start out closed-off and reticent in each others’ company – Thomas’ obvious but unspoken irritation at Thomas’ insistence on saying grace aloud before each meal adding to the tension underlying their largely silent partnership – but as the storm rages on and rations run low they are forced to open up to each other and they both become more rounded and human as a result. They are also ably supported by the technical aspects, which are gorgeous.
There’s a slightly unpromising start where a bare-knuckle fight with Lewis Jones, presumably inserted as a bit of character colour, is directed in slow-motion like one of the fights from Guy Ritchie’s bearable Sherlock Holmes films, and it’s out of kilter with the rest of the film and a bit annoying. But the vast majority of The Lighthouse is technically outstanding. The cramped, wet, isolated confines of the lighthouse, the battering storm, the period costume and detail – all these things are realised beautifully, and this is a sumptuous film to watch for people who like their Downtown Abbey to look like real history instead of the pompous guesswork of a fat talentless overprivileged dickhead. The cramped atmosphere and the endless repetition of a handful of scenes, which would be obvious budgetary handicaps in so many movies, work perfectly with the premise and are an exquisite example of how lower-budget filmmakers can make virtues of their limitations. Writer/director Chris Crow and cowriter Paul Bryant are to be congratulated on this eminent good sense in choosing their story to match their capabilities, because you get the real feeling of the budget all being laid out onscreen with neither wastage nor ambitions unmet by the realities of production. This visual beauty also helps the screen-time fly past – at one hour forty, the film, though by no means a marathon effort, is slightly longer than I would expect a two-hander to work at, but work it does.
As the two characters come closer to the frayed edges of their nerves, hysteria sets in and secrets are unveiled. Needless to say, the hysteria tiptoes around the edges of tedium for the viewer – no matter how well-acted, hysterics ultimately are always on one note, and must be used sparingly for fear of tiring the audience out before the actor (hysterics are always great fun to play). There are some good mechanisms in place to support them, though – the metronomic repetition of six men’s names, and the partial mystery of their significance, is a nice touch. Rhythm cuts through the human brain in strange ways, and its use as a touchstone by a man who doubts his sanity, even though what it refers to may be traumatic, is cleverly accomplished. For the more modern secular viewership the Christian referents may get a bit heavy-handed, but one cannot argue that they are untrue to the timeframe of the story or the characters who inhabit it. And one of the Thomases has a nice line in vitriolic blasphemy that should keep any Dawkinsites onside despite the other Thomas’s clunking piety.
The Lighthouse is not a perfect film. It starts badly and, though this is an innate aspect of the story being told rather than an actual failure, it’s slow to build. It’s principally a character piece and some viewers may find themselves wishing for less chat and more bloodshed. But if you like period pieces and/or psychological thrillers rather than the balls-out splatterpunk mode of horror, then I suspect it will ring your bell. Because it has a proper story rather than just a display of visceral killings, you don’t even have to be drunk to watch it – handy for those of us still homebrew-free thanks to residing in wooden lighthouses.