While The Lightkeepers is above all a warm and amusing romance, I was surprised that it was also, to some degree, a mystery. For much of the film, we can only speculate on the real back stories of the four main characters, who continuously sidestep the obvious for fear of revealing something too damaging. A typical conversation in this film is a witty yet restrained stab at the truth, each character knowing the other has more to say but is afraid to push too far. By the end, when we learn everything we need to know, we realize that the point was not to shock us with revelations but rather to sympathize with the characters, to get us to understand why they kept so much hidden for so long. It’s sort of like having an argument: You may not know what led up to the disagreement, but you’re relieved when it’s settled.
This is a light and quietly pleasant little film. Perhaps it’s too simplistic, but then again, who says a story has to be complicated in order to be engaging? The fact that the leads lend stereotyped performances only adds to the charm, for it gives the film the cozy feeling of a story – not a fairy tale so much as a generational narrative, like learning about how your grandparents first met. Taking place in 1912 on Cape Cod, we first meet Seth Atkins (Richard Dreyfuss), a gruff and salty old seafarer who now tends a lighthouse and has decided to abstain from women. So resolute is he as a woman hater that he’s deeply offended when casually asked if he’s married. Why so bitter? He has his reasons. Suffice it to say, a lighthouse on the beach is the perfect escape for those who believe that they just want to be themselves.
One day, a young British man washes up on shore. He tells Seth that his name is John Brown (Tom Wisdom), and quite frankly, he’s surprised that he’s still alive. After recovering, he ever so gently urges Seth into taking him on as an assistant. Seth agrees, although John is hardly the type; the locals call him a Jim Dandy, someone so refined and sophisticated that they represent the best of their kind. Like Seth, John has absolved himself from women. And like Seth, it’s for reasons he doesn’t feel like sharing. All he knows is that working in a lighthouse is just different enough that it may help him figure things out. Until then, he and Seth promise to be firm in the unlikely event that one catch the other consorting with the opposite sex.
Here enters two women, one a vacationing artist, the other her housekeeper. The former is Ruth (Mamie Gummer), brought up as a minister’s perfect daughter before turning cynical. Her outlook may explain why she hasn’t yet married, but she can’t help it if her standards for a man are far too high. The latter is Mrs. Bascom (Blythe Danner), who’s trying to forgive her husband despite the fact that he left her and disappeared years ago. Inevitably, both will cross paths with the woman haters, and wouldn’t you know it, one of them is spying on the other because it seems that he’s forgotten (or perhaps intentionally broken) his own pact.
So as to preserve the mystery of these characters, I will refrain from describing any more of the plot. I will say that this movie contains not a single sinister surprise; if anything, it’s all rather sweet and serendipitous, which is to say that it’s entertaining despite having virtually no basis in reality. If I can’t recommend this film for its originality or plausibility, I certainly can for its tone, which is so good-hearted and unpretentious that it bypasses all notions of critical thinking. You can just sit back and enjoy it for what it is, no questions asked.
This applies to the characterizations just as much as the plot. As Seth, Dreyfuss fakes a crotchety New England accent so pronounced, it’s as if he wanted his character to sound less like an authentic seaman and more like a retired Long John Silver. And then there’s Wisdom, who portrays John like a character from an Oscar Wilde play – droll, erudite, and ever so slightly sarcastic, all while maintaining a ceaselessly handsome façade that reminded me, strangely enough, of Keanu Reeves. Danner plays Mrs. Bascom as a woman of great emotions, always addressing Seth anxiously as if she were either on the verge of tears or trying to suppress hysterical laughter. Given what transpires between them, it’s quite possibly a little bit of both. The only disappointment is Gummer, who’s never given all that much to do as Ruth except be an emotional crutch for John. Nevertheless, she does the best she can with what little she’s given, making Ruth cool and levelheaded while at the same time cautiously optimistic.
I can’t say that I needed to see this film, but just the same, I am glad that I saw it. The Lightkeepers inhabits its conventions far more amusingly than traditional romantic comedies, which are often times bogged down by over-the-top setups and unconvincing actors. Watching this movie is like settling in with a book on the beach: When it’s over, we may not have learned anything new or valuable, but we realize that we’ve been entertained nonetheless.