In his follow-up to his 2015 Oscar-winning Holocaust drama “Son of Saul,” Hungarian director László Nemes takes viewers back to the early 20th century for “Sunset,” a compelling drama of royalty, riches and revolution.
It’s 1913, just before the Great War, and Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakub) arrives in a Budapest milliner, answering an ad for seamstresses and hat designers. She’s talented at both, and comes by it honestly: Her parents founded the milliner where she wants to work. But the current owner, Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov), refuses to hire her, and even buys her a first-class ferry ticket out of Budapest, saying the big city will eat her alive.
Írisz is stubborn, though, and is determined to learn more about her parents, who died when she was 2 years old under suspicious circumstances. She becomes more determined when a man, a grizzled coachman named Gaspar (Levente Molnar), busts into her boarding room, blurting out something about her brother. Since Írisz didn’t know she had a brother, this news makes her even more determined to learn the truth.
Her path takes Írisz into the orbit of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s hat-buying royalty, a cabal of aristocrats, another cabal of revolutionaries led by the mysterious Sándor (Marcin Czarnik), and a strange ritual involving the milliner’s other seamstresses. She also crosses paths with Brill and his store manager, Zelma (Evelin Dobos), who are preparing for the store’s gala anniversary and want no interruptions of the big day.
Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély deploy the same filmmaking device they used in “Son of Saul,” of keeping the camera tightly yoked to the main character. The camera usually keeps Írisz tightly in the frame, either focusing on her delicate face or positioned just behind her swanlike neck to film the action as she’s seeing it.
There is plenty of action to see, with bustling city scenes and drum-tight suspense filling the corners of every frame in long, fluid takes. The plot, in a script by Nemes and co-writers Clara Roper and Mathieu Taponier, is dark and complex, but riveting when seen through Jakub’s wide, expressive eyes. “Sunset” takes Jakub’s Írisz on a dangerous ride, and the audience hangs on for the thrills.
Opened March 22 in select cities; opens Friday, May 3, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for some violence. Running time: 142 minutes; in Hungarian with subtitles.