With his blistering debut, ‘Son of Saul’, László Nemes used shallow focus and point-of-view camerawork to plunge into the hellscape of Auschwitz. For his follow-up, a strange and elliptical mystery set during the dying embers of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1913, the same techniques don't work nearly as well. Those technical choices made ‘Saul’ a disorientating, disturbing and mesmerising experience, but here they’re distancing rather than immersive. The bustle and vibrancy of Budapest remains frustratingly out of focus throughout. After 140 minutes, your eyeballs will know the feeling.
The conduit through ‘Sunset’s teetering world is Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a young Hungarian woman orphaned as a baby when her parents died in a fire. Her prospects are not great but she has a dogged spirit that carries her from Trieste to the grand Budapest hat store her parents set up to petition its urbane new proprietor for work as a milliner. Soon, she has both a job and a grim room in a broken-down part of the city – as well as news of a brother she didn’t know she had. From there, she begins a tenacious hunt that soon leads her into a chaotic swirl of terrorism, conspiracy and insurrection.
These should be the raw ingredients for an incendiary spy thriller or a compelling journey into a tinderbox that’s ready to blow. And there is plenty of craft in the way Nemes charts a world slipping from transition into chaos. But as the plot machinations unfold (Irisz’s brother turns out to be a Colonel Kurtz-like figure lurking the shadows), the artful murkiness begins to grate. The constant chirrup of disembodied voices – a Tarkovsky-like device that’s overused here – becomes distracting, and style overwhelms story.
Talented newcomer Jakab provides the story with a steely core, but the taciturn Irisz feels one-note. There’s a whole lot of grim-faced determination but not much else as she faces down Habsburg counts, imperious royals and craggy workers in pursuit of the truth about her mysterious sibling. Nemes wants to let the chaos and noise of ‘Sunset’ overwhelm the audience, but like Irisz herself, it’s hard not to get a bit lost in the clamour.