Based on the 2012 novel by M.L Stedman, The Light Between Oceans is writer/director Derek Cianfrance’s first shot at an adaptation. It’s certainly a change from his most recent successes – Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, both of which were dynamic and profound, if not hugely popular. The Light Between Oceans aims to be all three but falls short, more Nicholas Sparks than J.M. Coetzee.
The story follows a returned WWI soldier, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), who takes up the post of lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a fictional island off the coast of Western Australia. Prior to taking up his post Tom is introduced to Isabel (Alicia Vikander), the beautiful daughter of a local landowner. Their romance begins after a picnic and a bold marriage proposal from Isabel and takes an epistolary turn when Tom returns to Janus Rock. In the fashion of the 1920s, the couple are soon married and Isabel moves to the lighthouse.
Vikander and Fassbender are a compelling on-screen couple (indeed, they began dating during the shoot), their relationship made up of tender, meaning-laden looks and Vikander’s tinkling laughter. There’s a lovely and understated gentleness about this first forty-five minutes, which is quickly darkened by Isabel’s two consecutive miscarriages. It is here that the film takes the emotional turn the trailers promised. Vikander’s suffering over her losses is heart wrenching, though this major plot point doesn’t get enough screen time to be properly felt by the audience.
Mere days after the second miscarriage, a dinghy washes up on the shore of Janus Rock bearing a dead man and a crying baby. Tom, ever cool-headed, wants to report the incident but Isabel convinces him that they ought to bury the dead man and raise the baby as their own. Years pass in a series of soft vignettes and small scenes before Tom happens across a grieving widow, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), who upends the happy domestic situation on Janus Rock.
The script is deft enough, though the series of terrible decisions that drives the plots feels, at times, inauthentic. Fassbender, for his part, perfectly portrays the weary stoicism of a returning soldier, his solemn gravity never weighing too heavy. He is tender, nuanced, and moody all while staying mostly silent – I wonder if there is a more communicative jaw in all of Hollywood.
Vikander and Weisz are equally brilliant, bringing a welcome energy and desperation to their characters. The two roles are emotionally complex and where the film errs it is in not allowing them room and time enough to breathe. When the female leads are on screen they steal the show, but Cianfrance’s focus on Fassbender results in much of the emotional weight being lost somewhere in the seaspray. Hannah turns into a plot device, despite the sensitivity and weight with which Weisz portrays her and Isabel, without the benefit of Vikander’s full artistic arsenal, becomes hollow, a mere outline of pain.
The lives of both women are given a cursory look but not explored in sufficient depth or detail. Indeed, the fact of Fassbender’s obvious primacy within the film sits jarringly against a plot that centres on women who have lost and found their children.
Heartfelt and brooding, there’s something of both romantic saga and family drama about The Light Between Oceans that strays tantalising close, but never becomes, cliché. It’s a lonely, reflective, sort of movie, sometimes too ponderous for it’s own good, but powerful nonetheless. It’s solemnity is underscored by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s beautiful work – all wind-swept seas and soft-lit close-ups with an understated score washing over the whole thing like a sepia Instagram filter; not adding much in itself, but somehow making the imagery all the more attractive. The Light Between Oceans is a meandering film but manages to avoid getting lost in its own intricacies.
Running time: 2h 13 min