Film Review: The Light Between Oceans (2016)

I’m often referred to as being a cynic, and in many ways that characterization rings true. Other traits however color me as something else: a sentimentalist. I often find love stories – particularly those given life by actors as beautiful as Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender – to be quite touching. I’m also a big sucker for stories about imperiled children. Just give me a Bicycle Thieves or a Woman Under the Influence and get ready to watch the tears flow.

Thus, Derek Cianfrance’s fourth feature, A Light Between Oceans, was almost guaranteed to turn me into a spectacle. By the time it was over, I had been reduced to the spitting image of our President-elect: a blubbering man-baby, completely incapable of regulating my emotions.

The Light Between Oceans is the story of Tom (Fassbender), a world-weary World War I veteran who has recently returned from Europe. As the film begins, Tom is hired to be the light keeper for an isolated lighthouse located on an island off the coast of Australia. He soon meets the beautiful Isabel (Vikander), a local girl who lives on the mainland with her family. After a hilariously abridged courtship, the two marry and settle down to live at Tom’s lighthouse.

The couple then begins trying to have a baby – which results in two disastrous miscarriages and a lot of crying and screaming. These reproductive challenges hurl the couple into a perpetual malaise, which lingers until a rowboat washes up one day carrying a dead man and an infant girl. Agonized over their recent struggles, the couple makes the rash decision to keep the child, bury the man in the island’s grassy hills and not log the event in the lighthouse’s records.

Years pass and Tom and Isabel enjoy an idyllic life together with their informally-adopted daughter, who they name Lucy. This changes when the family returns to the mainland to have Lucy christened. On this trip Tom discovers Lucy’s origins and the great tragedy that brought her to his island’s shores. He also learns that Lucy’s mother, Hannah (played by Rachel Weisz), has been emotionally destroyed by what she believes is the dual loss of her husband and daughter.

Hannah is someone who is existing but not living, a fact that torments Tom greatly and provokes him to anonymously notify her that her daughter is alive and safe. Although obviously the product of good intentions, this sets off a chain of events that puts Hannah, Tom and Isabel on a collision course that deeply and irrevocably affects all their lives.

A Light Between Oceans is a beautifully shot and acted piece of work. It is fueled by the strong performances of Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz, who are utilized with precision by director Cianfrance. The film is old fashioned in its aesthetics and approach, committed to being a weepie of nearly epic proportions.

Cianfrance, working off the 2012 novel by scribe M.L. Stedman, riffs on thematic material that is similar to his past work (including the excellent Blue Valentine and the very good The Place Beyond the Pines). Anyone familiar with the director’s canon will recognize familiar themes of fate, love, isolation, marital strife and forgiveness.

Yet while there are superficial similarities, the gritty subtexts of economic fatalism and familial influence – integral to Cianfrance’s earlier efforts – do not factor quite as predominantly into The Light Between Oceans. Far more conventional, the film’s sweeping romance and moral ruminations are compelling but somewhat pedestrian and facile. It also features occasional snippets of tin-eared dialogue. Rachel Weisz in particular is saddled with a number of lines regarding the importance of forgiveness that are so blatantly unnecessary that I feared my already useless brain was dissolving into mush.

But for what the film lacks in narrative innovation and artful dialogue, it makes up for in aesthetics and acting. DP Adam Arkapaw spectacularly captures the wind-swept hills and surf-splattered shores of Tom’s magnificent island. He also augments the chemistry of the two leads through romantic framing. Editors Jim Helton and Ron Patane provide the film with an effective pacing, credibly selling the story’s significant timeframe with affecting montages. Finally, production designer Karen Murphy and costume designer Erin Benach imbue the film with the authentic essence of a highly specific time and place.

But the film is first and foremost an actor’s showcase. Of the three leads, Vikander probably has the least to do. As is the case with many adaptations, my guess is that Cianfrance was forced to heavily abridge Stedman’s original text. While Vikander hits every one of her intense emotional notes, you never really understand her worldview or what is driving her. Her powerfully maternal instincts are painfully clear, but insight into where they originate is largely omitted.

Weisz has a far more developed arc and system of internal motivations, but unfortunately much of her character comes off as cliched. She is prone to showing up unannounced in doorways to deliver impassioned speeches and balefully quivering at the tombstone of her dearly departed spouse. It’s a testament to the skill of Weisz and Cianfrance that Hannah has as many compelling scenes as she does; the script just doesn’t do her many favors.

And as the film’s male lead, Fassbender owns the part of Tom. His chemistry with Vikander is palpable, and while Tom is not the most complex character Fassbender has ever played, he is the most fully-developed role in The Light Between Oceans. Working from Cianfrance’s script, Fassbender creates a multifaceted portrait of a specific type of masculinity: a prototypical member of the lost generation, often incapable of giving voice to deeply embedded feelings of pain, loss and guilt.

The Light Between Oceans is a movie that grabbed me, but that doesn’t mean it’s a truly great piece of cinematic art. While the filmmakers admirably commit to the story’s romanticism and melodrama, the movie is missing the unpredictability and nuance found in Cianfrance’s best work and in the best films in general.

Unlike Blue Valentine, where in many scenes you were unsure how to feel, The Light Between Oceans is intent on advancing a very specific agenda: It wants the audience’s peepers to get a long, hard workout. For me, being the closet sentimentalist that I am, the film accomplished this goal. I choked on my tears harder and with greater frequency than at any point since election night; I also enjoyed almost every minute of it. It’s hard for me to believe, however, that this will be a universal reaction.

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