–The Light Between Oceans is beautiful, compelling, and heartbreaking, but eventually capsizes after a two hour bout with melodrama and multiple story arcs.
As the moving camera glides over the central structure of dramatic director Derek Cianfrance’s new gorgeously flawed piece of costume romance The Light Between Oceans, we are reminded of descriptors or emotions that a lighthouse itself brings to mind: a lone structure on a pillar or island far from civilization that only functions as a directory for people who will never touch it…in fact, it’s the very symbol for yearning.
So much of The Light Between Oceans is taken from its visual palette, drinking in gorgeous oceanic scenery with just a hint of rustic brown that reminds us of both the working class, average people that we focus on, but also the light-spoiled essence of an old photograph. For every reaching shot of the miles of ocean between our characters and the closest town, there’s another one of the grass, dirt, and rocks that has been transitioned into a makeshift farm for them to live on, reminding us of their normalcy and commitment to each other. In terms of being a postcard for early 1900s, post WWI society, I think it captures the very essence of the fallout. While the war is not a part of this film, the consequences of it are woven into our characters’ minds and surroundings.
Fresh out of the war, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes a job as the keeper for a lighthouse a few miles of rough ocean away from Western Australian coast. After what he’s been through, the solitude of living alone in the cottage below the lighthouse seems refreshing, as he works tirelessly to build it into a suitable home. Over time, he becomes restless and a little lonely, and meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of one of his superiors, during a visit to the mainland. After initially just some fluttering eyelids, he realizes he has a pretty supreme attraction to the outspoken girl, and after she offers, takes her to lighthouse where they set up a home together, marrying during one of his visits and exchanging months of letters before that.
While they grow their love and affection for one another, they try to have a baby, and then two, but both are met with awful miscarriages that damage their marriage and Isabel’s grip on reality. So when a baby in a lifeboat washes up on their lonesome shore, they take it in, raising her despite a clear bit of guilt and future consequences that only Tom realizes. When the real mother (Rachel Weisz) comes into the picture, everything Tom has built for Isabel could collapse, leaving behind uncertainty and legal ramifications in its wake.
Now, in the press, this film has been billed as a massive love story that apparently was so good that the two stars, Fassbender and Vikander, fell in love during the filming. Both actors have relative unknowns in their personal lives, mostly because they’re just famous enough for film experts to adore them, but not enough for there to be massive amounts of tabloid attention. When they were forced to throw us a bone about it during promotion of this movie, it made them “cuter,” (though I hate to use that word for really reputable actors) in the public eye. They’re both also immensely fashionable, but that’s neither here nor there.
While the scenery and sheer sweeping nature of the film’s overarching story line are its biggest plus, the two actors deliver strong performances through and through. Fassbender has been one of the more seriously committed actors in the business over the last five years and Vikander picked up a much deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress last year.
When Tom begins his tenure as the lighthouse keeper, we feel his loneliness set in, and the set up where Isabel clearly is interested in him during a few of his visits creates some strong romantic tension that is eventually realized once they move in together. Cianfrance had stated that hours upon hours of shooting had been cut for the final edition of this film, and there are parts where it becomes extremely obvious. The most burdensome comes with the introduction of Tom and Isabel’s relationship, where they are writing intense love letters to one another after only five minutes of screen time together. A longer courtship between the two of them would’ve been greatly appreciated to add legitimacy to the later scenes.
However, once they begin getting cute and romantic with each other, we’re awarded with a fantastic second act. Their happiness is wonderful to watch and their struggles with childbearing is heartbreaking. When the baby washes on sure and we see an extremely fragile Isabel beg to keep it, we realize the complexity of this situation, and how denying Isabel this privilege of raising the stranded baby would possibly be the end of her. The unraveling and eventual healing of Isabel throughout the second act is wonderfully portrayed by Vikander, all under the watchful, but guilty, eye of Fassbender.
At this point, the first act was gorgeously framed despite some occasional pacing problems, and the second act was fantastic, but then the third act comes along. This is another area where it was obvious that the film took too much material to turn into a two hour edited cut in its finale. We go from four to five emotional states simultaneously with the introduction of Rachel Weisz’s Hannah. And without spoiling the ending, the final cut has moments of clarity from Hannah where we feel like we can reach a good arrangement among the three of them, but the film refuses to make sense of Hannah’s constantly moving motivations, so the third act is more frustrating than rewarding or depressing. I would’ve been happy with a horribly bleak ending or a perfect bow-tied ending; the result is a mess in-between of unanswered questions and unneeded subplots (one involving legality that is just beyond unnecessary).
Occasionally, reviews of this film would point to it being “Lifetime-esque,” and that may be true in a few sections, but there are no lifetime movies that sweep such a massively painful scenario with Oscar winning actors and A-list directors. The Light Between Oceans is a gorgeously flawed film, an exercise in emotional manipulation and powerhouse acting that will stay in my mind for the rest of 2016. Perhaps it’s the sort of the film that the viewer recognizes is flawed but can’t get enough of, and after a bland summer of regurgitated sequels with no originality, I will recommend a film that tries this hard to be refreshing and captivating. Most people were sniffling walking out of the theater, and there’s one shot at the end that convinced me of giving this a positive review: one of Fassbender sitting in a chair to the right with the other empty beside him. This may mean something different than first impression, but just note that the final shot of this film is immensely powerful, all from visual cues.
The Light Between Oceans (2016)
Director: Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines)
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
RT Score: 61%