The Light Between Oceans (2016)

Love demands everything

A sweeping period romance adapted from the pages of M. L. Stedman’s 2012 novel, also titled The Light Between Oceans, this good ol’ fashioned weepie is sure to get those tear ducts flowing. Written (for the screen) and directed by Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine (2010), The Light Between Oceans tells the story of Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a haunted World War I veteran yearning for solitude, who takes a temporary gig as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a fictional remote island off the coast of Western Australia. Before going into isolation, he is welcomed by the folk living in the nearby township, where he meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander). Having experienced her own personal loss, Isabel finds herself drawn to Tom’s quiet disposition and firm ethics. After capturing his heart, the pair marries, Tom taking his wife to live with him on the cliffs of his own private island.

While their first few months as newlyweds play out like a shining fairytale — we see too many shots of Fassbender and Vikander frolicking about in the fields — things begin to go south when the couple try to start a family. After suffering through the pain of two tragic miscarriages, Isabel falls into a deep depression — due to her inability to carry a babe to term — while her husband, Tom, is left feeling futile and powerless. But despite these low lows, the pair soldiers on, their love for one another enduring through this tough time.

'Marriage. It has a nice ring to it.'
‘Marriage. It has a nice ring to it.’

One day, however, a miracle washes ashore in the form of a rowboat carrying the body of an anonymous dead man along with that of a weeping (but healthy) baby girl. Instantly taking to the child, Isabel tries to persuade Tom into keeping the infant, and passing her off as their own — since no one on the mainland had been informed of Isabel’s second miscarriage. Going against his better judgement, Tom buries the body and hesitantly agrees to keep the orphan. Years pass without incident, the twosome raising the baby (whom they eventually name Lucy) as lovingly as possible. That’s until Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz) enters the frame, a grieving widow who reveals to have lost her husband and newborn at sea not too long ago. Now, with the dutiful Tom compelled to do the right thing, the couple must come to terns with the weight of their own questionable choices.

Be patient as The Light Between Oceans starts slow, filmmaker Cianfrance taking his time to establish his characters, their internal fears and anxieties. Throughout this opening portion we witness Tom go from a broken soldier, to a warm, caring man, the lovely Isabel easing some of his sorrow and pain — Michael Fassbender, Macbeth (2015), conveying a multitude of depth and emotion. Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl (2015), is great as Isabel, too, but it isn’t until the character’s confronted with some harsh realities that we begin to see Vikander’s tremendous scope up on screen — with scenes that detail Isabel’s agony perhaps a bit too heavy for some. Even so, Vikander excels in expressing both anguish and joy, Isabel eventually lighting up after attaining a child, friends and family convinced of a premature birth and Isabel trying to put her bleak past behind her.

Let me be your lighthouse
Let me be your lighthouse

After two strong acts of astute direction and capable performances, it’s disappointing, then, to see the feature fall apart in its third, when Weisz’s Hannah Roennfeldt triggers Tom’s guilt, her whole clunky back-story shoehorned into proceedings at the eleventh hour. What’s more, with pleas, tears and betrayals piling up and characters making one infuriating decision after another, the whole thing begins to resemble an overcooked, intricacy plotted Nicholas Sparks flick, the soap-opera schmaltziness sabotaging all of the fable’s best intentions.

Shot in and around Tasmania, Australia and New Zealand, The Light Between Oceans looks sublime, Aussie cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, Animal Kingdom (2010), capturing the tempestuous climate of the area — the sun straining to break through layers of hazy cloud and ocean fog — these natural conditions putting significant stress on the couple’s life with raging winds and violent storms separating the lovers during turbulent times. Production design by fellow Australian Karen Murphy, The Great Gatsby (2013), is excellent also, with stark, dimly lit stairways and wistfully elegant period detail enhancing the mood and overall atmosphere. Then there are the well-known Aussie faces that crop up in small supporting roles, such as Garry McDonald, Moulin Rouge! (2001), who portrays Isabel’s father Bill, Jack Thompson, Mystery Road (2013), as Ralph Addicott, an old sea dog whom Tom befriends on the isle, and Bryan Brown, Cocktail (1988), who makes an appearance in the third act as Septimus Potts, Hannah’s wealthy old man.

'On-set romances never last ... just look at Brangelina!'
‘On-set romances never last … just look at Brangelina!’

Exploring themes of selfishness, moral obligation and the weight of adult responsibility, The Light Between Oceans may test one’s patience, given the fact that the film runs for 133 minutes — that’s close to two and a half hours! Be that as it may, it’s the first-rate cast that elevates this impassioned melodrama, which unashamedly tugs at the heartstrings. Next time, however, it’d be great to see an Australian talent cast in, at least, one of the three chief roles.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

The Light Between Oceans is released through eOne Films Australia