Review: ‘Sunset’ (2019)

Sunset one-sheet poster

Sunset | László Nemes | February 8, 2019

In 2015, Hungarian director László Nemes made a huge first impression with his debut feature film Son Of Saul. The film was a tough watch with a relentlessly bleak depiction of the horrors in Auschwitz, and it went on to win Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars. So it’s safe to say that people had a different set of expectations for his anticipated follow-up, Sunset.

Sunset still - Irisz getting off a train

Set in 1913 Budapest right before the dawn of World War I, a young woman named Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) returns to the Hungarian capital with hopes of landing a job as a milliner at Leither, a legendary hat store once owned by her parents, who tragically died in a fire when she was two years old.

The store’s owner, Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov), denies her the job, but Irisz isn’t one to give up and stays in the orbit of Brill and manager Zelma (Evelin Dobos). At first, she just wants a job but after a scary interaction with a stranger puts her on notice about her dangerous brother, she demands some answers. She spends day after day trying to resolve this mystery but everywhere she goes, no one is willing to give her any of the answers that she is looking for. Does she really have a brother? Who exactly is he, and why is everyone so afraid of him?

Sunset still - Irisz and Oszkar

Son Of Saul was so effective because of the paranoid tension Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély created with tight foreground shots literally tracking the protagonist as if we were following right behind them. The director teams up once again with Erdély, aiming for the same effect in Sunset, but this time around, the results aren’t nearly as effective.

There is a curiosity at first to the mystery of Irisz’s situation and what exactly Budapest and its residents are hiding from her. But the script – written by Nemes, Clara Royer, and Matthieu Taponier – draws this mystery out in a repetitive fashion that grows tiresome throughout its 144 minute runtime, which you really start to feel during the backend as she continues to go back and forth searching for the same thing and barely getting any concrete answers.

Sunset still - Irisz in a carriage

On a technical level, Sunset is an impressive feat just as Son Of Saul was. The cinematography is gorgeous and the way the scenes unfold can create effective moments of mystery and tension. The film rests on the performance of its lead actress Juli Jakab, who is more than up for the task. But as the story continues to go in circles like a dog chasing its tail, there’s really only so much she can do to keep us engaged, demonstrating the same expression of confusion that many in the audience may be experiencing.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Nemes is a talented filmmaker with a ton of technical prowess and an appreciation for classic cinema. It’s just the narrative that he goes for with Sunset feels stretched way too thin and doesn’t quite earn the demanding runtime that it asks of its audience.

Rating: 6.0/10