Back in 1900, three men set sail for the remote Flannan Isles off the coast of Scotland. They were lighthouse keepers, who were to spend six weeks there, looking after the big light. But they never returned and, despite various theories, their disappearance has always remained a mystery. An updated and fictionalised version of their story comes to screens this week in The Vanishing – and if the title doesn’t ring any bells that’s because, until recently, it was known as Keepers.
That change was just as well. Seeing Gerard Butler’s name on the poster alongside a title like that would have given the impression that he was back on romantic drama territory. He’s not, although it’s a film that’s not lacking in drama. He’s one of the lighthouse keepers who, with Peter Mullan and Connor Swindells as the other two, arrives on the island. Mullan is the oldest and most experienced, Swindells the youngster who can pack up all his worldly belongings in a solitary kit bag and big, burly, bearded Butler is the man in the middle. It’s a trip that’s tailor made for conflict and that’s exactly what happens when Swindells finds a smashed rowing boat, a dead body and a chest containing gold bars. After all, that box belongs to somebody and they’re going to come looking for it ….
Yep, there’s pirates on the North Sea and they’re most definitely Scandinavian, bringing their own brand of noir with them plus Danish director, Krystoffer Nyholm, fresh out of TV for his debut feature film. The first half of the movie takes its time in building the atmosphere and the characters in preparation for things getting nasty – and they get very nasty indeed, both physically and psychologically. You know they will. It’s telegraphed well in advance, even if you don’t know the ins and outs at that stage, although the narrative does tend to acquire more holes than that wrecked rowing boat as it develops.
It still manages to work reasonably well, and much of that is down to the cast – the film is often simply a three hander. Mullan does what Mullan does best, craggy of face and craggy of voice, but commanding the screen as the men’s leader. The interest here, though, is Butler who shows that, given the opportunity, he’s capable of more than we’re used to seeing from him. His bluff, good natured keeper isn’t the sharpest tool in the box but he’s also the most affected by the events on the island and his mental deterioration is well portrayed. He’s let down by one of his darker deeds looking like it was filmed with one of the most memorable scenes from No Country For Old Men in the back of the director’s mind. This certainly isn’t in that league.
Chances are the film will slip into cinemas for a week or so and then do a vanishing act of its own. That would do it a disservice. It’s solid enough, tense and decently acted, if no classic. But, in truth, it’s not going to kick up a storm.
Freda Cooper | [rating=3]
Drama, Thriller | Cert: 15 | UK, 29 March (2019) | Lionsgate | Dir. Krystoffer Nyholm | Gerard Butler, Peter Mullan, Connor Swindells, Soren Malling.