Review: SUNSET Is Visually Grand But Narratively Bland

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Right: Juli Jakab as Irisz Leiter. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Sunset is the newest film directed by Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes (Son of Saul). It follows a young woman who returns to pre-WWI Budapest with the goal of getting a job at the famous hat store formerly owned by her family and ultimately sending her on a quest to find her long lost brother. It has played at festivals including the 2018 Venice Film Festival and the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

Perhaps the biggest issue with this film is that the story is not as exciting or compelling as you would hope. There are definitely some interesting moments, but the film does not take full advantage of its setting in the lead-up to WWI. The title refers to the decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but this only occurs in the background of the film. The main story is instead a somewhat bland melodrama about a woman trying to reconnect with her past.

This melodrama could have been effective had the emotional connection with the characters been more evident and strongly developed. The protagonist is likable enough, but she is not given enough in terms of personality to allow her to truly shine. There is a strongly feminist overtone to the film as well, although this is largely prevented from being effective because of the disappointing lack of depth in the protagonist’s arc.

Because of these reasons, the film’s pacing is quite trying at times. The runtime is over an hour and twenty minutes, but it feels much longer. About twenty to thirty minutes of unnecessary content could have been cut out and the narrative would have remained intact. There are a few bursts of excitement here and there, but these are so fleeting that they pique your interest only for the story to slow down significantly again.

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Left: Juli Jakab as Irisz Leiter. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

That being said, the film does have some interesting themes. The main point of the film is about embracing the past. The protagonist is desperately searching for a connection to her family so that she can find satisfaction. Additionally, the film itself is a love letter to the past, offering a kind of nostalgia for the glory days of Hungary before everything went downhill during the Great War.

The lead actress in the film is also quite strong. Actress Juli Jakab does an excellent job as the protagonist Írisz. She adds a ton of emotional nuance to the character and allows her to be quite sympathetic despite the fact that she is mostly underwritten. However, no one in the supporting cast particularly stands out. This is predominantly a one-woman show as Jakab frequently takes the spotlight from anyone else with whom she is sharing the scene.

On a technical level, the film was very good. The look of the film is absolutely beautiful, driven by the gorgeous 65mm cinematography by Mátyás Erdély. The visual quality which celluloid can lend to a film is incomparable and so often underused in this day of digital. You will look at this film and be completely awestruck by some of the shots. Additionally, the production design is great, doing an excellent job of periodizing the film and immersing the audience.

Overall, Sunset was a solid film. Although the script isn’t the most interesting or compelling, the visuals are absolutely phenomenal, making the film one that fans of period pieces will certainly want to catch.

Sunset is now playing in select theaters.

By Sean Boelman

Sean is a film student, aspiring filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include dramatic comedies, romantic comedies, heist films, and art horror.

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