There’s a brutal scene half-way through The Vanishing, director Kristoffer Nyholm’s “what if?” take on the Flannan Isle mystery.
It’s a fight between lighthouse keepers James Ducat (Gerard Butler) and Thomas Marshall (Peter Mullan), and two violent Scandinavian men who’ve appeared looking for their missing chest of gold.
James, dark-haired and bearded, big and brawny, takes on the also dark-haired and bearded, bigger and brawnier Boor (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson); while Thomas, older, grey-haired and wiry, struggles with the grey-haired and wirier Locke (Søren Malling).
It’s hard to work out who is who as they brawl, and it’s as if these ordinary Scottish men are starting to turn into lesser versions of their attackers, now death and greed have intruded.
It also serves to highlight the separateness of James and Thomas’s fellow lighthouse keeper, the much younger Donald (Connor Swindells), who from the off I wouldn’t want to spend six hours with, let alone a six-week stint in an isolated lighthouse. He’s one of those disruptive characters who creates unease simply by being.
James at first seems as solidly straightforward as it’s possible to be. He has a wife and two children that he loves; he also loves the lighthouse machinery and getting it to work, and takes pride in the chores to keep everything going, from cleaning the light itself to making broth. After the first calamity James makes more broth, methodically chopping vegetables. Thomas has lost his family and he’s nearly done after 25 years’ lighthouse-keeping. They’re friends, though even James defers to Thomas in all matters.
Since they set off for their stint on the island, Donald has been an outsider: gently mocked for not knowing what no one’s told him yet about the job, but given no responsibility.
It’s Thomas who comes up with a vaguely workable plan when they discover the chest, a rowing boat and a dead man in a gully, the morning after a storm: say nothing to anyone, and wait for a full year before spending anything.
This find is the catalyst for a brutally violent thriller that turns into a psychological drama, with a surprising (and unexpectedly sad) ending. It occasionally jars, but mostly I found the changes in tone darkly elegant.
The Vanishing (formerly Keepers, and as a lover of film title puns how I wish they’d kept it) is inspired by the Flannan Isle mystery of 1900. Three lighthouse men disappeared from their posts, leaving only an upturned chair and a set of oilskins. No one knows what happened to them, though the most likely explanation is that they were swept away in a storm. But likely explanations aren’t very interesting, one reason why I doubt many of us really want famous historical mysteries to be solved (though how great if it turned out to be aliens).
It’s Donald who spots the body. He’s winched down to check it out, and as he’s tying the rope to the wooden chest, the dead sailor turns out to be anything but – attacking Donald from behind. It’s a stunning moment (literally) and leads to an extraordinary scene, almost comical in some ways, with James and Thomas calling down to Donald to “hold on there” while his attacker tries to kill him. It’s literally life or death yet no one tries to scramble down to help him until they have the rope.
Donald manages to kill the man, though he’s devastated at what he’s done. But when the bodies start to pile up, it’s James who’s in danger of losing his mind, staring-eyed but not seeing anything apart from what he’s done. Donald becomes more accepting of his own deeds and less accepting of the weakest link now it’s no longer him. “It’s been a hell of a week” he deadpans later, with sociopathic understatement.
Throughout all of this, I wasn’t sure whether the deaths change them or whether they can no longer hide the men they always were. I think that’s also James’s dilemma.
James’s emotional collapse can’t simply be caused by guilt at what they’ve done, though it includes a retreat into religiosity. He’s already suffered two big whacks to the head when the sailors turn up looking for their gold and is obviously seriously injured.
Still, Nyholm weaves into this new story other, long-accepted hazards of lighthouse-keeping. Mercury poisoning, arising from long-term exposure, can lead to hallucinations and depression. Mercury was used to make the light turn smoothly; there’s a mercury spillage soon after their arrival, along with a useful explanation of what it’s for.
Isolation is less important here – the men’s problem is too many people, not too few. If anything it all looks very enticing – wild and beautiful – and I can’t be the only mum watching it thinking “what I’d give to be stuck there with a pile of books I’ve been trying to read since 2010, and enough chocolate digestives to last six weeks”. (Plus I’m the only person I know who loves big lights.)
The sea, too, is hazardous and unpredictable. I loved its vast expanse with no rocks or land to frame them, just empty water.
I also loved the outfits: the earthy tones, baggy trousers held up with braces, workaday cotton shirts, and chunky jumpers (actually the same chunky jumper every day). I was in 19th century heaven. Who needs corsets, bon-mots and bonbons when you’ve got bearded Scotsmen melancholically smoking pipes, about to meet their doom?
There are perhaps too many suggestions left by Nyholm, to add to the air of forboding (though they’re all very enjoyable). “I’ll pray for you!” says the previous incumbent, eager to leave, as he hands over to James, Thomas and Donald when they land. The mercury spillage. Dead seagulls. The explanation of the woolding, pirate torture involving a rope tied round the forehead and twisted until the victim’s eyes pop out.
But while that pervading sense of menace starts off artificial, it soon feels very real. Fixing the radio becomes harder not easier, hands bumbling, now that it’s essential. Each violent development makes their cover story more complex and more likely to crack. As people’s true colours emerge under pressure, it’s clear they haven’t a chance of getting through a year keeping quiet, even if they can all get off the island.
The performances are impressive: Swindells is both bumptious and weaselly from the start. For Butler it’s a triumphant return as a character actor – a nuanced study of an injured man overwhelmed with agonising despair that he’s not the man he thought himself to be. Mullan is terrific as Thomas, already hardened by tragedy, the only anchor in a sea of panic.
James’s breakdown is heartbreaking, Donald increasingly as sinister as their opponents. And everyone relies on Thomas, to the very end.
Watch the trailer for The Vanishing now: