FilmSpace at London Film Festival: The Lighthouse; Jojo Rabbit; Hope Gap; Wounds

Calum Cooper

Film critic Calum Cooper has gone south for the 63rd London Film Festival. His latest batch includes a bold new film from Robert Eggers, an anti-hate satire from Taika Waititi, a somewhat hollow drama starring Anette Bening, and the newest from Babek Anvari.

The Lighthouse – ★★★★★

Let’s spill the beans readers: Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse is chilling, hypnotic, oddly funny, and immersive in the most fascinating and horrifying of ways. As the film unfolded, I felt like I was slowly going insane alongside the characters. My anxiety and confusion galvanised into the most immersive of experiences. I couldn’t have looked away even if I wanted to.

So simple and yet so effective is the premise. The film opens on a dense and uncompromising fog. Emerging from it is a ship, taking Robert Pattinson’s character and his boss, played by Willem Dafoe, to a lonely lighthouse island. I will not reveal their names as the film holds off on revealing them until the end of the first third. They are there to work for the lighthouse for 4 weeks, with only each other for company. But as the two go about their duties on the island, small disagreements, and annoying grievances (including a bizarre rivalry with a seagull) begin to spill into paranoia, anger, and eventually despair.

This is a genius idea for a film because it plays with one of humanity’s biggest fears – isolation. Not just that, but isolation in which you have no control over the outcome. When Pattinson arrives on the island, it becomes apparent that he does not entirely want to be there. More than likely he took the job to get a quick bit of money. Furthermore, his dislike of Dafoe’s character is made evident early on too. Dafoe is eccentric, but also an unpleasant individual. His uncleanliness is appalling, his teasing loses its appeal quickly, and he lauds Pattinson’s inexperience over his head, to the point of actively denying him entry into the light room itself.

Now imagine having to put up with that for days and weeks on end, while also working a job you’re not particularly enjoying, and in an environment in which there’s no easy way out of it. It’s enough to drive anybody mad, and the film capitalises on it immensely. We would be able to feel the heat of the men’s bitterness if not for the icy cold of the stormy weather and lonely rock of which the film takes place on permeating the screen.

As the film unfolded, I felt like I was slowly going insane alongside the characters. My anxiety and confusion galvanised into the most immersive of experiences. I couldn’t have looked away even if I wanted to.

The film is photographed on black and white 35mm with an aspect ratio of 1.19:11, creating a boxed in look around the frame. Not only does this add to the claustrophobia of the setting, but it adds to the feeling of being trapped in a hallucinogenic nightmare. As the editing becomes as stormy as the weather and the characters begin to lose their grips on reality, we find ourselves trapped in the film’s grip. It builds its atmosphere and breaks its character’s relationship so acutely that we feel stranded on the rock with Pattinson. We get occasional relief in the form of comedy, but the laughter is as much a coping mechanism as it is a response to the absurdity. For when we are not laughing we are white-knuckling the seats out of the intense, mystifying nature of what is unfolding.

It’s an erratic, deeply atmospheric film in which we find ourselves as anxious as Pattinson, but it is the film’s tight direction, bold writing, and phenomenal performances that allow us at least a slither of a platform to stand on throughout the runtime. Dafoe goes full lunacy in many of his scenes, chewing the scenery and piercing right into the dark soul of the subtext with Oscar-worthy efficiency. Pattinson is arguably even better, for his performance is every bit as desperately restrained as it is uncontrollably explosive, shown in full when a conclusion is reached with the seagull.

Eggers directs the film with such daring mystique that we often find ourselves at a crossroads between humour and horror, upping our anxiety. There’s a particularly great scene in which Pattinson throws a barrage of grim and creative insults at Dafoe where you find yourself amused and unnerved at the same time, displaying the game of emotional chess the film forces you to partake in. It keeps its cards close to its chest and its characters uncomfortably close and in the dark. It builds on its claustrophobia and gothic visuals beautifully, taking us on a rollercoaster of confusion and despair until our final shot, in which an unusually cheery sea shanty overlooks the masterful eeriness we have just had the pleasure of witnessing.

The Lighthouse is a work of pure terror in the most immersive of senses. It’s haunting, visually stunning, thematically rich, and provocatively unnerving. Between this and the equally evocative The Witch, Eggers is cementing his place in the world of horror cinema, and it’s a real delight to see him earn his place in such bold fashion. This is not only a highlight of the London Film Festival. It is a highlight of 21st century horror cinema.

Jojo Rabbit – ★★★★☆

With hatred being on the rise again, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is precisely the medicine we need. It’s eccentric, funny, and considerate when it needs to be. The film saw a polarised reception at Toronto Film Festival, which I honestly don’t get. Thankfully London Film Festival’s response has been considerably better if my fellow LFF critics and I are anything to go by. But even if this wasn’t the case, Jojo Rabbit would still be a terrific film. It would only be us who were missing out.

Set in 1945 in the last months of World War Two, newcomer Roman Griffin Davis plays Jojo Betzler, a young boy joining the Hitler Youth who is determined to make Hitler proud. So determined in fact that his imaginary friend is a comic version of the Fuhrer himself, played by Waititi, who Jojo interacts with frequently. Immersed in Nazism, Jojo discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl in their house, named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). Stunned by this revelation, Jojo slowly starts to question challenge his loyalty to Nazi ideology. Supporting characters are played by such noticeable names as Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, and Rebel Wilson.

Waititi has described the film as an anti-hate satire, and there isn’t a more fitting description. It relentlessly mocks not only the disgusting prejudice woven into extreme right-wing ideology, but, frankly, the inherently ridiculous nature of many Nazi beliefs. Waititi’s script goes out of its way to ridicule the barbarity and absurdity of hateful customs, all in the name of giving a colossal middle finger to the hatred Nazism stands for, with Waititi, a Polynesian Jewish New Zealander, playing Hitler himself being the biggest and funniest middle finger of all.

It is strongly and consistently funny. Yet, like Waititi’s other films, it’s not just fun and mockery. There is a story going on, and one that’s surprisingly feel-good in spite of its historical setting. Jojo, despite his wishes to be the loyalist Nazi there is initially, has a naturally timid temperament. He is given a chance to kill a rabbit early into the film, and refuses – earning him his titular nickname. This cleverly takes the coming of age formula and turns it on its head. Instead of Jojo having to grow up and mature, he must instead reclaim an innocence and empathy that Nazism has stolen from him.

Waititi’s script goes out of its way to ridicule the barbarity and absurdity of hateful customs, all in the name of giving a colossal middle finger to the hatred Nazism stands for, with Waititi, a Polynesian Jewish New Zealander, playing Hitler himself being the biggest and funniest middle finger of all.

Taking us through this journey are many fun characters, played by a plethora of actors. Standouts include Scarlet Johansson as Joji’s mother – a character far more complex than she initially lets on – and Sam Rockwell as an overly enthusiastic camp leader. Generating much of the film’s magnetic pull is its lead actors. Thomasin McKenzie amazed me with her dramatic abilities in the flawless Leave No Trace, and she displays a sharp knack for comedy here, taking command of every scene she is in.

Yet the highlight is wee Roman Griffin Davis, who displays such a versatile range at such a young age that I’m amazed that this is his first film. Much of the film’s emotional weight is worn on his shoulders, and a lot of the comedic weight too, but he carries it gracefully, delivering genuine laughs and compelling drama simultaneously, whether on his own or working off his co-stars. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

The film isn’t without faults. I’ve heard arguments from people who have preferred the satire over the seriousness and vice versa. I personally think the film handles both rather well, but they don’t always mesh in the best way, one often overpowering the other depending on the scene. Its drama is certainly strong, but had it been developed just that wee bit more to meld better with the eccentric, often cartoonish, sense of humour then we could’ve had something even stronger on our hands.

But, all things considered, this is of little concern, for Jojo Rabbit is still a massively entertaining flick when all is said and done. Ironically a feel-good film via its natural charm and plentiful laughs, this is yet another home run from Taika Waititi, who continues to demonstrate why he is one of the most unique voices currently working in the film industry. Also, the film features the best f-bomb ever uttered in a (presumably) 12A rated film. I dare not give it away. You’ll know it when you hear it.

Hope Gap – ★★☆☆☆

Hope Gap is a film that sees romance collapsing in on itself. But it’s not nearly as simple as your common divorce film. It’s a clashing of personalities in which both personas want entirely different things, and more than a little selfishness muddying the motivations. It all rounds up to a film with some decent analytical prowess, but remains pedestrian in execution.

Annette Bening and Bill Nighy play Grace and Edward, a poetry enthusiast and History teacher respectively who have been married for 29 years. Their son Jamie (Josh O’Connor of Only You) is a web designer who comes home for the weekend, returning to Grace and Edward’s opulent coastal home. During Jamie’s stay however, Edward confesses that he has fallen in love with someone else and wishes to divorce. Their relationship was already going downhill as hinted at in previous scenes, but this sprung surprise on Grace destroys what is left of their marriage, as husband, wife, and child all struggle to deal with the consequences of this.

The film makes a respectable attempt at examining the situation fully, doing so by approaching its characters in an even-handed fashion. We can see to some extent why Edward is leaving, but also view his handling of the situation as cowardly. Meanwhile, Grace is an almost unfairly stern person, but her outlooks and approaches to life are things we can sympathise with. Anette Bening gives a terrific performance, effortlessly embodying the stages of grief in Grace’s arc, while Nighy’s colder performance makes for a nice change from his usual charming formalness. There’s a little greed in both of their characters, whether greedy for a new life or revenge, and that allows us the film to grey the waters of the story.

Also on display is the thematic idea of embracing feelings, however positive or negative, an idea that I respect in many ways. A recurring concept throughout the film is how all of the explosive consequences of the situation could have been avoided if the characters had simply opened up and expressed what they were feeling earlier, rather than attempt to bottle everything up, or worse pretend that everything was fine. It’s a thought-provoking concept that showcases how important something as simple as a meaningful conversation can be, even if it’s initially masked by chat of the past.

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My problem with the film is that it doesn’t seem to know whose perspective to focus on. Initially O’Connor’s role is to be the observer to his parents’ separation, so you would assume that his perspective would be central. But the film is constantly jumping back and forth between his and Grace’s viewpoints, while leaving Edward’s completely in the dark. By doing this, the film becomes tonally erratic and begins to lose track of where our cinematic compass should lie. We go from intrigued about the moral ambiguity of the situation to confused on who it is we should be identifying with.

This does little to distract us from the conventional way in which this film is both presented and realised. True the cinematography presents picturesque shots of the coast, and the script does at least try to give its characters a few more dimensions. But the film plays out precisely in the way you think it would, often dragging scenes out so that it can overwrite the emotions of the moment to milk as much as humanly possible. It doesn’t make the film bad per se, but it does make it a little hollow and repetitive. At 100 minutes, it’s hardly a demanding watch, but I still found myself checking my watch a few times.

Hope Gap is a film that I can see doing a lot of good for the right audience member, but for myself there just isn’t enough flavour added into this all too well-known dish. I can’t fault it in terms of how it’s made or performed – it’s just narratively a bit bare. It’s occasionally pleasant and it’s occasionally funny, but if it was aiming to rip our hearts out then it’s going to need a lot more style and a lot more focus.

Wounds – ★★☆☆☆

Wounds is not only a big mess, but a bitter disappointment. It’s written and directed by Babek Anvari, the man behind 2016’s Under the Shadow – which is one of the decade’s best horror films. That film was tense, atmospheric, and masterfully constructed. Wounds has barely an inkling of the same genius. I really ought to be giving this one star, but the insanity of what’s on screen is so strangely fascinating that I somewhat recommend it in an ironic way.

Armie Hammer plays Will, a New Orleans bartender down on his luck. He’s still in love with his ex, Alicia (Zazie Beetz), who has clearly moved on, and is in a loveless romance with Carrie (Dakota Johnson). He seems to despise his bar job, but doesn’t know what he’d do otherwise. After a tense brawl breaks out in the bar, Will spots a mobile phone that has been left behind by some college students. Picking it up, he finds some disturbing photos that showcase gruesome wounds on dead bodies. From there, things get weird… Really weird…

Most frustrating about this premise is that I can see a version of this film that I would’ve probably dug. The idea with the phone and coming across something sinister that you otherwise wouldn’t have opens up many possibilities. Whether in the form of Paganism, some other cultist ideology, or even more supernatural ideas, there is plenty you can with a setup both that simple and that open.

I really ought to be giving this one star, but the insanity of what’s on screen is so strangely fascinating that I somewhat recommend it in an ironic way.

Frankly, this script just isn’t good enough. The dialogue has this uncomfortable vibe of trying to sound modern, but instead sounds whishy-washy or forced, such as a particular moment where Will suddenly voices his dislike of millennials in the most nonchalant fashion. It gets so random (such as a Dakota Johnson monologue on worms) that it becomes unintentionally funny rather than creepy. But that wouldn’t matter for the narrative has more bends in it than a cul-de-sac and the characters incredibly one note. In fact, beyond recognising the actors who portray them, the characters are so bland that our emotional attachment amounts to virtually nothing. They’re not likeable, and they’re certainly not interesting.

Something that made Under the Shadow so good was its articulate ability to build dread and suspense, attributes which are only fleetingly present in Wounds. Rather annoyingly, Anvari has traded in the suspense that he crafted so ingeniously for cheap jump scares, half of which are turn out to be false given how often someone’s mobile phone goes off irritatingly loudly. If not jump scares, then the film relies on imagery, and not just in the form of grotesque wounds, as gruesome or fake as they look. The film has more than a little curiosity towards cockroaches. Whether individually or in large packs, the wee beasties swarm the screen, towards the various wounds we see in the film, to what purpose I’m not entirely sure.

But what really sinks this film is how difficult it is to take seriously, both from its weak writing and its hollow narrative. It comes across like a smelting pot of ideas that never quite fit together. What it results in are scenes and ideas so insane that it almost has to be seen to be believed. The stuff with the cockroaches becomes jaw-dropping, and all the while plot points – such as a laptop video of travelling through tunnels and the college kids’ role in the story – disappear, never to be resolved or seen again. The film doesn’t even conclude. It just sort of stops, resulting in a final shot that confuses more than horrifies. Although it is fun trying to figure out what the endgame for all of this material was, because so many components being this ridiculous can’t just be for the sake of it. Can it?

I can’t say I was ever bored with Wounds, but that’s not a compliment in this case. There were more people laughing in my screening then getting spooked, and I hate to say it, but I can see why. It’s so preposterous that I have half a mind to suggest watching it for yourself. I have no doubt that Anvari will go on to make a better film. Look no further than Under the Shadow as proof of his skill. But I think he needs to consider his next steps carefully. Wounds is branded psychological horror, a description I can’t fault as my psyche will still be trying to figure out what the hell was going on by the time it officially releases.

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