The Light Between Oceans
The Light Between Oceans is the sort of bad movie only really talented people can make—pedigreed, mounted with conviction and an earnest to a fault. Unfortunately, it is also a mawkish soap opera with little in the way of real substance, and one that puts the audience three steps ahead of the characters in a long, dull slog to obvious conclusion that comes long after we’ve stopped caring.
World War I vet Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) looks to find peace and solitude from the horrors of battle by taking a job as a lighthouse keeper on a tiny island off the coast of Western Australia. This isolation does the trick for Tom, at least until he begins a courtship with a coastal beauty named Isabel (Alicia Vikander), and their budding relationship gives the movie a fleeting passion, mostly due to Vikander’s signature vitality.
Yet after a period of married bliss on Janus Rock, two miscarriages leave Isabel despondent. Lo and behold, rough seas bring a battered rowboat ashore, its occupants a dead father and surviving newborn daughter, a lockstep narrative contrivance.
While Tom believes it best to hand the child over to authorities, Isabel swiftly convinces him otherwise, and they bond with the child and keep her as their own, setting up a moral quandary for Tom, suppressing his guilt.
Isabel, on the other hand, convinces herself that they are doing the right thing in providing a home for a child who would otherwise fall into foster care; a situation that also just so happens to serve her voracious need for motherhood. The film presents this serious decision as merely a momentary ethical compromise, and after handily burying the dead man’s body, they are finally a happy family.
Fate intervenes a few years later when a chance meeting with the child’s biological mother, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), confirms Tom’s worst fears—that his actions, like those he may have taken in the war, have contributed to the devastation of another human’s existence. Depressed Hannah lives in the same town as Isabel’s parents, and as you might have guessed, one where secrets are hard to keep, especially when you bring your toddler to town gatherings where your family is the guest of honor.
This revelation is too much for Tom to bear, and his guilt sets in motion a series of communications with Hannah that—you guessed it—create a struggle for the well-being of the child and put Tom and Isabel into legal, marital and parental jeopardy.
Well-intentioned, The Light Between Oceans never comes to life because the story is thinly conceived and predictable, and none of the characters are more than two-dimensional, despite strong work by all three principals.
Vikander especially digs in and delivers a performance of immense need, sadness and longing, even when her character amounts to little more than a grieving kidnapper. She manages something quite special by creating empathy for a woman we don’t always like or agree with, and someone who, at times, seems aggressively selfish and self-serving in spite of herself. And Weisz, an actress who never goes for easy sentiment, takes a cerebral high road in all the mawkishness, but she never has the opportunity to deliver writ large. Fassbender is typically fine if perhaps a bit stoic, effectively suffering in secret, his close-ups measured, thoughtful and complex.
Compensation comes mainly in the gorgeous widescreen cinematography by Adam Arkapaw, lensing the bleak beauty of seascape isolation, but Alexandre Desplat’s uncharacteristically syrupy—and emotionally distancing—score tells us from the opening moments just where we are headed, straight into period, Nicholas Sparks nonsense.
Based on a 2012 novel by M. L. Stedman, the picture is directed by talented Derek Cianfrance, whose career apex to date has been 2010’s raw and moving Blue Valentine, an incisive portrait of a marital meltdown. The Light Between Oceans strives to depict such acute relationship pathos as well as the forces of fate he explored in his 2012 father and son opus The Place Beyond the Pines. But this time the material is pedestrian pap, morose melodrama minus the drama.