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Review: The Vanishing


- Danish director Kristoffer Nyholm puts his name to a slow-burning, anxiety-inducing thriller which boasts spot-on performances, with Peter Mullan leading the way

Review: The Vanishing
Gerard Butler in The Vanishing

Three men on an island in the Outer Hebrides, a lighthouse, a mysterious chest replete with gold bullion, two pirates hell bent on getting their treasure back... The title has all the makings of a kids’ adventure film and yet The Vanishing [+see also:
film profile
is actually a psychological thriller inspired by a true story, also featuring two actors - Peter Mullan and Gerard Butler (who also produced the film) - who are Scotsmen through and through. The Flannan Isles, where the story is set, are sadly famed for a mysterious event which took place in December 1900, where three lighthouse keepers vanished without trace. There have been many theories over the years, examined in works ranging from that of poet Wilson Wilfrid Gibson in his 1912 publication, Flannan Isle, to the recent book by Keith McCloskey, The Lighthouse. Now, Danish director Kristoffer Nyholm offers up his own, personal interpretation of events in The Vanishing, a dramatic reflection on the greed which gives rise to madness and murder.

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In the first few minutes of the film, Nyholm introduces us to the three main characters - Thomas Marshall (Mullan), James Ducat (Gerard Butler) and the young Donald McArthur (Connor Swindells) - who are casting off for the island where, for the next six weeks, they will be responsible for the maintenance and general upkeep of the lighthouse. Marshall is a rather austere-looking veteran and we later learn that he is mourning the recent, tragic loss of his wife and little girls. The lines on the face of the actor-come-director tell us far more that the few, rare words that he manages to utter. James Ducat, meanwhile, is a textbook, honest, family man who reluctantly leaves his family in order to earn some extra cash doing a job which takes him to a deserted rock of an island. Donald is the least experienced of the trio, and the naivety and impulsiveness of youth are well expressed by this British actor who has only very recently revealed himself to international audiences in his lead role in the Netflix series, Sex Education.

Once landed on the island, the three men quietly begin to get about their work. Until one night, a storm brings a small boat crashing to their shores, harbouring a castaway in possession of a chest. The man attacks young David who has run to his aid, and, the latter, in self-defence, ends up killing the unknown sailor. Within a few hours, the lighthouse keepers are paid a visit by two seamen hailing from the North, played by the corpulent Ólafur Darri Ólafsson and the disconcerting Dane, Søren Malling. From hereon in, destructive and self-destructive tendencies intertwine, triggered by the delirium of greed and the fear of missing out on a lifetime of riches. The loss of innocence is most evident here in the youngest of the three keepers, but the attempts made by Peter Mullan to escape his feelings of guilt are almost as captivating as the surprise we feel at seeing muscle-man Gerard Butler - an action-film supremo - sinking into the fiery depths of psychological hell. 

Known for The Killing, his seminal BBC series, Nyholm proves with The Vanishing that he’s an unobtrusive director who knows how to inject the right amount of suspense into a claustrophobic situation, just like that of a lighthouse perched atop a small island. The script relies heavily on the ability of the actors to convey some of the darker sides of human nature; so much so, that The Vanishing could easily adapt itself to a live, theatrical setting, were it not for the wild, dominating presence of the sea (many of the scenes were shot around the Mull of Galloway lighthouse) and the pirate ship which circles the isle like a shark. The psychological nuances, however, aren’t so subtle as to make the film anything more complex than a good, slow-burning, anxiety-inducing thriller, and the cast delivers spot-on performances, with Peter Mullan leading the way.

The Vanishing is produced by Mad As Birds and G-BASE, in association with Kodiak Pictures, Head Gear Films and Metrol Technology. The film is now being released in European theatres (Greece with Weird Wave, Italy with Notorious Pictures) and will land on its homeland, the UK, on 29 March with Lionsgate.

(Translated from Italian)

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