Cast: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Running time: 2 hours 12 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Of all the possible paths a well respected indie director can take--big jump to major studio property, helming a massive superhero franchise, showrunning a Netflix Original TV series--there's something altogether refreshing about Derek Cinafrance's decision to adapt M.L. Steadman's debut novel, The Light Between Oceans. Not that the source material is necessarily groundbreaking or overly complex; this is a fairly standard period piece melodrama, but Cianfrance's interest in its themes nevertheless feels germane to the kinds of films he's made up until this point.
Unlike a lot of promising American auteurs being scooped up by the system, Cianfrance has managed to maintain his distinct voice while working with A-list actors, beginning with 2010's Blue Valentine; a heart-breaking gut-punch of a debut which saw actors Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams delivering arguably their most nuanced performances to date. 2012's flawed but ambitious The Place Beyond the Pines followed; revealing the writer-director had loftier aims with a sprawling saga covering themes of past sins, absentee fathers, and generational guilt. With The Light Between Oceans, he splits the difference between intense character drama and sweeping story of moral consequences, and mostly succeeds in capturing the old fashioned grandeur of the early 1900s as well as the destitute heartbreak of emotional catastrophe.
The film opens with WWI veteran Tom (Michael Fassbender) retreating to the solitary duty of lighthouse keeper, whose only social interactions involve residents of a nearby coastal town, where he eventually meets the luminous Isabel (Alicia Vikander). The pair share a series of polite flirtations and heartfelt meetings, one of which takes place on a cliff overlooking a golden-hued sunset (gorgeously lensed by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw), where they discuss mutual loss and past trauma. Of course, the two inevitably marry and decide to live out their days together on the small secluded island where Tom works, and of course, as is often the case with period-set melodramas, tragedy is just around the corner.
Though Cianfrance whirls us through Tom and Isabel's blissful honeymoon period (shot mostly in artful montages), the reason he may have been drawn to Steadman's novel becomes clear after Isabel endures two heartbreaking miscarriages and a mysterious grieving mother, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), enters the story. The Light Between Oceans transforms from a rather simple, though lovingly photographed, tale of moral ambiguity into something richer and much darker. The real key here is that neither Tom, Isabel, or Hannah are portrayed fully as either saints or villains. Instead, there's moral shading which grounds even some of the character's most self-centered decisions. In terms of acting, Fassbender delivers the film's most complex performance as a man torn between doing the right thing and what he believes is best for his emotionally traumatized wife. Vikander's part is showier, but in a way, just as difficult, since she has to begin the picture as a beacon of vitality and youth, only to steadily devolve into mental instability. Despite a few instances where she hits some over-the-top notes, Vikander adeptly gives us a window into this woman's experience and in terms of conveying unspeakable loss, absolutely nails Isabel's pain. Meanwhile, Weisz brilliantly portrays Hannah almost as a haunted skeleton thrown into an emotional tailspin once information regarding her long-lost child surfaces.
Cianfrance's facility with actors and gift for relaying complex moral themes without falling prey to maudlin impulses is on full display here, though many will still claim The Light Between Oceans enters saccharine territory. Ultimately, the film does falter in two significant ways. For one, Cianfrance chooses to frame most conversations in claustrophobic closeup, only pulling out from time to time for breathtaking landscape wide shots. This decision is meant to compound the intimate nature of these interactions by putting us into the suffocating headspace of the characters, but it also feels static in a way that draws attention to the technique. There's also an issue with the epilogue, set some 30 years in the future, which ties up the film's thematic message, but also comes across as a lazy storytelling device. Much like The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance doesn't seem to know where his natural ending is, choosing instead to hammer home his themes bluntly rather than allowing the audience to fill in the narrative pieces.
Despite its missteps, The Light Between Oceans is a bold reminder of no matter the generational time-frame one finds themselves in, heartbreak and loss are intrinsic to humanity's desire to transcend their limitations. Cianfrance, too, should take heart; for his cinema is one in which grand gestures and humane sincerity can still be felt.