Strong performances and beautiful cinematography elevate The Light Between Oceans, yet soap opera contrivances and uneven writing hold it back.
The Light Between Oceans picks up in the year 1918, as Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes up a job as the lighthouse keeper on an island off the coast of a small town in Western Australia. While Tom is warned ahead of time of the psychological toll that this line of work had on the previous lighthouse keeper, he takes to the job well and sees it as an opportunity to enjoy some peace and quiet after years of fighting in WWI – in time, signing on for a long-term contract. Tom even forms a connection with his employer’s daughter, Isabel (Alicia Vikander) and before they know it, the pair have fallen in love and gotten married.
Although the couple settles easily into their simple, yet blissful, life with only each other away from the mainland (and all the people who reside there), their difficulties with having a child threatens to take a permeant toll on their happiness. Fate then intervenes when an adrift rowboat carrying a baby washes up on the island and a heartbroken Isabel pleads with – and eventually convinces – Tom to agree to pass the child off as their own. However, when they learn the truth about the child and where she comes from, the pair are faced with a dilemma that, no matter what they do, will end in heartbreak for someone.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans is the latest directorial effort from the acclaimed filmmaker Derek Cianfrance of Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines fame. Similar to Cianfrance’s previous work, The Light Between Oceans is a thoughtful and well-acted examination of how actions and choices made to sustain relationships can have unforeseen consequences (some of which won’t even be felt until years afterwards), regardless of the intentions behind them. Although Cianfrance guides the proceedings here with an (arguably) sturdier and more confident hand than he had on his previous directorial efforts, The Light Between Oceans falls short of exploring those issues and related ideas in an especially compelling or engaging manner.
The Light Between Oceans is, by design, a soap opera that brings to mind the collective works of Nicholas Sparks – using narrative contrivances and melodramatic plot developments to spin a yarn that changes from being a fairy tale romance to a (potentially) doomed love story, in little time. Michal Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, once again demonstrating why they are an Oscar-nominee and Oscar-winner, respectively, help to better emotionally-ground the events that transpire here, allowing The Light Between Oceans to tackle very challenging subject matter (the emotional scars left by different types of personal loss) without coming off as distasteful or saccharine. Unfortunately, Cianfrance attempts to cover too much ground here with a narrative that ultimately spans many years while tackling its big ideas, but only manages to paint the main characters, as well as their backstories and experiences, in overly-broad strokes.
Visually, however, The Light Between Oceans is Cianfrance’s most accomplished directorial effort to date. Under the watchful eye of its cinematographer Adam Arkpaw (True Detective season 1 and last year’s Fassbender-headlined Macbeth), The Light Between Oceans artfully establishes the mood for any particular scene or moment through vivid snapshots of costal Australia and New Zealand, where the movie was filmed. The camera angle framing and imagery captured further enriches the substance of the film’s narrative, as does the frequent use of ambient sounds from the environment and the dramatic score by Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel) – save for when the music is too over the top, anyway. Problem is, the film’s impressive craftsmanship also ends up compensating for the shortcomings in the story being told here.
As indicated earlier, the strong performances by Fassbender and Vikander also end up being in service of some flimsy storytelling. Part of the problem is that The Light Between Oceans largely frames the narrative from Tom’s perspective – alluding to his history and the events that formed him, without fleshing out Isabele as a character in equal measure. Isabele, however, is the driving force for such much of what happens in the story and so much of what transpires in the film winds up being less emotionally impactful, as a result. Fassbender and Vikander have good screen chemistry and make Tom and Isabele feel more like real people, but The Light Between Oceans still ends up feeling a bit hollow – being driven more by plot machinations than character development.
The third important player in The Light Between Oceans is that of Rachel Weisz’s character: Hannah Roennfeldt, the mother of the child “adopted” by Tom and Isabele. Hannah’s backstory is somewhat awkwardly woven into the second half of the film – allowing Hannah to better serve her purpose in the plot, but at the same time still falling short of fully developing the character and making her own arc as compelling or interesting as those for Tom and Isabele. The Light Between Oceans may be a story primarily about how three different people are affected by fate and the world around them and the subsequent impact they have on one another, but it’s only partially successful with its ambitious effort to tie all three narrative threads off in a satisfying manner.
In the end, strong performances and beautiful cinematography elevate The Light Between Oceans, yet soap opera contrivances and uneven writing hold it back. Cianfrance does fine work from a directorial perspective – even though, as the screenwriter here, he struggles to translate Stedman’s source material into a cinematic narrative that meshes with the raw and authentic tone of his now-established filmmaking style. The Light Between Oceans thus ends up being a film that has many qualities that are worth admiring, but feels somewhat cold and distant taken as a whole. Still, if a respectable romantic melodrama (even one with extra helpings of misery) is to your liking, then this is one love story that you might take a fancy to.
The Light Between Oceans is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 132 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sexual content.
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