Nothing screams ‘kick the blockbuster summer off’ than a two and half hour foreign language period drama, am I right? With the likes of Aladdin already under my belt and things like The Lion King still to come, I took advantage of the smallest screen in my local multiplex to go and see the latest offering from Son Of Saul director László Nemes. Was I the only living soul in the cinema at 9PM on a Monday evening? Yes, yes I was.
Set in the contemptuous and brooding climate of 1913 Budapest, Sunset tells the story of Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a young woman who returns to the luxurious hat store that her parents used to own in search of employment. After many years in an orphanage after the mysterious fire that killed her family when she was only a child, Írisz is determined to seek out some kind of truth about her origins and the circumstances surrounding the tragedy, and it’s safe to say that she finds much more than she bargained for.
This is a strange one for me, because whilst I can see a lot to merit in Sunset, it just isn’t a film that works for me on a personal level. An ominous and atmospheric drama that very much benefits from a tense pre-WWI environment, all of the pieces of the puzzle are there to put together a really tense and strangely captivating story, but for one reason or another the movie feels like more of a test of patience than a riveting ride. What seems at the beginning to be an inclusive family mystery soon turns in to something much darker and wider in scale, and whilst the scope of the storytelling feels quite impressive, the slow pacing of the picture proved to be a detrimental factor for me.
In many ways, Sunset feels like a foreboding kind of horror film. In the moments that really work, there is a growing sense of terror that quite honestly, put me in mind of something like Hereditary, not in theme of course, but more in the tone that is created by claustrophobic close ups and a rather incessant, sharp score. The more I think about it, the more I am coming to the conclusion that the concepts within Sunset are more interesting to talk about than to actually watch take place on screen. There is a distinctly tense atmosphere that remains strong throughout, a tension that alludes to the wider imminent downfall of a civilisation and continent about to be turned upside by world war.
If the filmmakers’ intentions were to have the audience just as dazed and confused as the protagonist is for much of the picture, then they have certainly succeeded. Nothing is every entirely clear in Sunset, which turns it in to a rather challenging viewing experience at times. I certainly enjoyed the dark tone that was maintained throughout, but the over long running time and slow pace made the film, dare I say, tedious at times.
As Írisz Leiter, Juli Jakab does a fine job, with the problem being that she portrays that kind of protagonist that I have a personal annoyance for. There is no arguing the Jakab doesn’t have a natural kind of magnetism in front of the camera, she has a steel and intensity in her eyes that arrests attention effortlessly, and the character has a silent stoicism that really matches the imposing, oppressive tone of the film overall.
My thing, though, is that Írisz is a character that enters the narrative with little to no information, and proceeds to sort of walk in to each new segment of the plot in an identical fashion, wide eyed and inquisitive but also confused, and it feels like not much changes from beginning to end. Although several more details are revealed as the film proceeds, the character is constantly required to do this sort of walking in to a new scene with astonishment and confusion type of thing that really start to agitate me. The very same kind of performance was given by Jennifer Lawrence in mother!, complete with just as many invasive close up shots. It frustrated me in exactly the same way.
The film very much centres Jakab as the star of the show, I can’t think of many frames without her, but a few supporting performances are worth a mention. Vlad Ivanov as the current hat store owner Oszkár Brill adds some interesting and disturbing tension to the narrative, as well as Levante Molnár as Gaspar, an unhinged coachman who leads Írisz to a dangerous brother she had no memory of. In fact, dangerous men are very much a motif throughout the picture, obviously to coincide with the foreboding ‘onset of war’ tone, but the same kinds of traits are portrayed again and again to the point where the characterisations become a little bit one note.
Overall, Sunset is a film that does some really great work in setting a tone and creating an uncomfortable, stifling atmosphere, but there is ultimately something about the pacing and story telling choices that prevents me from fully enjoying it. There is a lack of clarity in the central narrative that bugged me from start to finish, and I found that as a result I couldn’t invest or engage as much I was willing to. Potentially worth a watch if slow burn period drama is your thing, but certainly not one that blew me away.