In December 1900, three Scottish lighthouse keepers vanished from the Flannan Isles, a tiny archipelago 32 miles west of the Outer Hebrides. The tragedy excited wild speculation at the time and forms the basis for a new psychological thriller: The Vanishing. Unfortunately, the only thing that mysteriously disappears here is any sense of narrative cohesion, which falls off a cliff around the end of the second act.
The occurrence has not received the big-screen adaptation before, but many of its elements are eerily familiar: Danny Boyle’s 1994 film Shallow Grave was mentioned frequently by people walking out of the Glasgow Film Theatre at last night’s premiere. When three men are trapped on an island/submarine/spaceship, the plot usually goes one of two ways: supernatural or psychological. Last year’s ABC series The Terror, about the Franklin disappearance, audaciously explained the killings with a huge vengeful CGI polar bear god. The Vanishing takes the unvarnished route – no sea ghouls here; instead we have a shipwrecked lifeboat, a chest full of gold and a violent group of Scandinavian seamen. Which, when you think about it – and one thing this film gives you is long periods in which to think – is just as implausible.
The characters represent the Three Ages of Hardman, lippy weed (Connor Swindells), muscly family man (Gerard Butler) and granitey grandpa (Peter Mullen). They are little more than cut-outs but do occasionally offer us a flash of originality as we accompany them in their mundane tasks of lighthouse keeping and light housekeeping. Butler is quite a charming cook, Mullen sly and treacherous, though his backstory (grief over a dead wife and twins) lacks the interest it thinks it has. Scenes of incipient conflict are taut and involving, the men gingerly edging round each other and their assailants who, with a weirdness this film could do with more of, look like bizarro versions of themselves.
Director Kristoffer Nyholm is known for terse thrillers (Taboo, The Killing) but this drama has been scraped back so far its tropes poke through. So much is off-the-peg horror, so much else is left unexplained. Weapons are set up at the start, including a particularly poorly concealed explanation of the Spanish windlass on a crab. People stupidly go outdoors. People consistently fail to check if people are dead. And so on. The film does, however, do a workmanlike job of keeping the tension going, up to the point where it pivots from portraying external violence to internal trauma. There, the failure to develop inner lives of consistency or interest becomes a severe problem; the end of the film, containing the actual vanishing, in no way convincingly follows from what has gone before.
They’ve even managed to make Scotland look bland. Perhaps it is a little pernickety to criticise the film for not being Hebridean enough, but I do think the decision to film in Galloway, not on the Atlantic coast, was a poor one – as was not setting the drama in winter. It means there is precious little sense of place to make up for other inadequacies and no 33-metre waves to add to the excitement; the ocean here threatens little apart from mild seasickness. The lighthouse itself, however, is occasionally well used. In one good scene which, tellingly, has no relevance to the plot, the three don protective suits to scoop up spilled mercury and relight the beacon, ducking and shielding their eyes against its sudden glare, and for a brief moment you actually feel the true alienness and peril of their situation.
If you want to watch a group of men living in total isolation on a Hebridean islet, I cannot recommend highly enough An t-Sealg/the Hunt, which plays on BBC ALBA at 21:00 this Thursday, 28th February.
Our verdict: a shallow Shallow Grave.