László Nemes returns to the big screen with Sunset, a stylish follow-up to the critically acclaimed and award-winning WWII film Son of Saul, a film set in and around Budapest before the First World War and nearing the end days of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Írisz Leiter (newcomer Juli Jakab) returns to Budapest to apply for a job as a milliner in the famous Lieter store, an upper-class business set up by her late parents. After their untimely death in a fire, Írisz was sent off to Vienna and is only returning for the first time now. She finds the business thriving after being rebuilt by a former colleague of her parents, Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov).
She is shown little welcome from everyone in the store and there is an underlying distrust in Írisz’ motives as if they fear that she is returning to take over and assume the mantle of the store of her name. It is not, however, just in the store that the name of Leiter conveys something more, as bad feeling follows Írisz around wherever she makes an appearance, and it is on one of her many walkabouts where she learns of the existence of a brother she never knew she had, and vows to find him and reconnect somehow.
If that was the only premise then Sunset might turn out to be a better film, but as it is there are numerous other subplots at play throughout: rumblings of an uprising; some strange affair with the workers at the Lieter store; and a lot of chatter about her brother. Occasionally the storylines cross paths and ramp up the intrigue but also become largely impenetrable at times. Írisz’s presence may just have been the catalyst that all these threads needed to kick off, but you get the sense that she just ends up unwittingly in the wrong place at the wrong time, having no idea what it is that she is inserting herself into, but she does it with determination nevertheless. Írisz isn’t a particularly likeable or captivating character, and at times she is downright annoying, going where she is told not to go and getting escorted back to a safe space again, only to turn right around and repeatedly put herself into the places where she shouldn’t be.
As a device to utilise Nemes’ and Son of Saul cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s superb camerawork and style it works really well. The shallow focus on Írisz that maintains our attention on her whilst everything else is placed into the hazy background almost makes it dreamlike around Írisz’s presence. And these moments are the ones that work. There is impetus and purpose to those scenes, but when the movement has ended and it switches back to a more conventional style, Sunset loses its way, falling flat and lacking the interest and direction that the previous moments just had.
The production of Sunset is incredibly well done, as costumes, locations and make up are first-rate, and it is an immersive experience once you are in and around the cast. Coupled with the up-close camera work it can feel inviting and intriguing, and you feel drawn into events, but these moments are few and far between, and with a run time of approaching two and a half hours those moments in-between the action are certainly dragged out.
Trying to recapture the style and effect of the amazing Son of Saul, Nemes does well, but it is in his effort to expand on this style to the more conventional that Sunset loses its way. The beauty of Nemes’ first film was in its simplicity; you didn’t need too much dialogue to work out what was happening and that married perfectly with the up-close style he used. The same can’t be said of Sunset as that same style leaves you wondering what is going on and which of the many characters or plots Írisz is chasing this time.