Apparently based loosely on the true story from the 1890s of a Welsh lighthouse keeper who went mad after the death of his colleague , this highly acclaimed film directed by Robert Eggers with a screenplay written with his brother Max also draws on a short story of the same name by Edgar Alan Poe. It is a surreal psychological drama which ramps up the tension as we watch the interactions and inexorable mental disintegration of two men isolated for four weeks, more if bad weather delays the supply ship, in the claustrophobic setting of a rundown lighthouse on a bleak, rocky island off the New England Coast. The drama is intensified by the skilful use of black-and-white scenery, with not a hint of colour, filmed in an almost square frame to reflect the style of C19 early film-making, preceding the development of the wide screen. The men’s features, the wild sea and rocks are all shown in sharp detail, with images only blurred or flashed too quickly to grasp entirely, when intended to feed a sense of ambiguity. The script is play-like and requires close concentration, while the sinister rhythms and thumps of the film score add to a sense of menace.
William Defoe plays the old seadog Thomas Wake, forced to work ashore by an unexplained accident, given to spouting poetry and theatrical rants, who takes a delight in playing mind games and browbeating his new assistant into slaving over all the hard maintenance tasks, whilst jealously guarding for himself the “privilege” of entering the sanctum where the light is housed at the top of the tower. The younger man, Ephraim Winslow, who seems to be a drifter and may be on the run or haunted by some guilty secret, for the most part stoically endures the bullying and hardship, but becomes increasingly obsessed with the desire to see the light at close hand. He is also worried by Wake’s claim that his previous assistant went mad and died, because he has occasional troubling visions, including erotic images of a mermaid and encounters with a bold, malign seabird which he is told it would bring bad luck to kill.
For me, the film was too long, and some of the scenes of drunkenness become tediously repetitive, too “easy” a way of dragging events down to a new low, as the two men resort to alcohol as their only source of nourishment as food supplies run out in the incessant storms which prevent the expected supply ship from reaching them . Although I cannot say I enjoyed the film, which is quite unpleasant, even shocking, at times, relieved only occasionally by humorous moments, William Defoe and Ephraim Wake act brilliantly, it is visually striking, original and imaginative and I can understand why it has been hailed as a masterpiece.