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Film Review: Let the Sun Set on “The Sunlit Night,” Please!

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 16th, 2020

Film poster: “The Sunlit Night”

The Sunlit Night (David Wnendt, 2019) 1 out of 4 stars.

Though actress Jenny Slate (Landline) is an always interesting screen presence, none of her usual charm can save The Sunlit Night, the new film from director David Wnendt (Wetlands). Based on the eponymous 2015 novel by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, the movie follows Slate’s down-on-her-luck art student, Frances, as she escapes her dead-end life in New York to work as helpmate to a renowned, reclusive Norwegian artist living in the northern region of his country. Filled with gorgeous shots of the stunning location, The Sunlit Night looks terrific, but this surface beauty lies atop an interior shallowness that refuses to grow deeper over time (of which there is very little, given the film’s 81-minute running time). The sun may shine brightly throughout, but no great (or even minor) truths about the human condition (or just about Frances) are ever uncovered. It’s a blank canvas smeared with paint that holds no hidden meaning.

The story opens and closes with three academic/artist judges evaluating Frances’ work, at first negatively and then, at the end (plot spoiler, I know), far more positively. In between, there’s a travel narrative, meant to be both geographical and, far more importantly, metaphysical. Perhaps if the entire affair were not narrated by Frances in heavy-handed exposition, the viewers’ thoughts free to form their own conclusion, the oppressive weight of obvious transformation might not interfere with what limited joys there be. Instead, we are never without the sense that Frances will grow into a more confident soul, even while not understanding the underlying nature of that growth.

Jenny Slate in THE SUNLIT NIGHT ©Quiver Distribution

The ensemble cast features solid players, including Fridtjov Såheim (The Wave) as Frances’ ornery new employer, and Zach Galifianakis (A Wrinkle in Time) as a wannabe Viking. Gillian Anderson (the BBC’s The Fall) even shows up, at one point, though what her cameo adds to the proceedings, I do not know. Alex Sharp (The Hustle) mumbles his way through his role as mopey love interest, also contributing little of interest. What occasionally quirky pleasures exist are lost in a morass of screenplay chaos. Let the sun set on this one, and quickly.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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