Despite its pretentious title, “The Light Between Oceans” isn’t the haughty or arty period piece that it sounds like it would be. No matter how close it gets to going “Full Malick”, the movie is a deliberately paced (some may say slow), sweeping, and engrossing romance with powerful and textured elements ranging from survivor’s guilt, isolationism, and nature versus nurture parenting.
If that description makes you swimmy, don’t fret. Director and writer Derek Cianfrance balances it all out and doesn’t turn this 132 minute drama into a constant emotional gut punch. Are there a few moments when Cianfrance and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw allow an extended shot of crashing waves or grasses blowing in the wind to linger on too long? Sure, but to not show off the beauty of the western Australian coastline would almost be a crime.
“The Light Between Oceans” opens in 1918 as Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) returns to Australia after fighting in World War I. Tom applies for a position as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the coast and prior to beginning his lonely assignment, he meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who is the daughter of his employer.
The bubbly and curious Isabel proves that opposites attract as she begins the awkward courting of quiet, solemn Tom. There are implications that Tom is dealing with some serious post-war issues and his eventual marriage and love for Isabel helps him forget the past and look forward to the future.
After Isabel moves to the island with Tom, the couple has trouble having a child. When a rowboat with a man’s body and an alive toddler wash ashore, it’s immediately obvious where “The Light Between Oceans” is going. While it makes your heart leap for joy for Tom and Isabel, there’s no doubt that their decisions will eventually cost them dearly.
Tom eventually finds out about an unfortunate tragedy that befell Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz) and these events then turn his and Isabel’s life (along with their now four year old “daughter” Lucy, played by Florence Clery) upside down.
While the majority of “The Light Between Oceans” goes heavy on the drama, it never becomes intolerable. Cianfrance’s script doesn’t use any cheap tricks to manipulate your emotions. The second hour does become a bit of a pile on when seemingly nothing good happens at any time to anyone, but the performances and Arkapaw’s gorgeous photography keep it from being too much of a beatdown.
The most unique aspect of “The Light Between Oceans” is that each of the three main characters all have reasons for an audience to love and hate them and they all take turns playing the “villain.” Initially, Rachel Weisz is the heavy, if only because of her character’s situation, and she is her usual fantastic self. There’s a slow realization of her place in the world and Weisz makes the conclusion she arrives at seem natural.
Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander clearly enjoyed their on screen chemistry so much that they are now applying it to their reality. It makes sense because every second they share in “The Light Between Oceans” is fantastic and they make some fairly painful and sad scenes that much more powerful.
With a soulfully silent performance, Fassbender’s leading man status is only further entrenched. Vikander proves that her Best Actress Oscar is not fluky and she advances almost every plot point with ease. They are so likable that it makes their character’s poor decisions that harder to watch.
To this point, Derek Cianfrance’s films (“The Place Beyond the Pines”, “Blue Valentine”) have been critical successes with little box office returns to show for it. “The Light Between Oceans” is not as good as those movies, but it’s also not as depressing. It definitely ties it up too conveniently, even though everything that happens up until the final 15 minutes would leave a normal human being emotionally devastated for life.
“The Light Between Oceans” is Cianfrance’s attempt at romance movie dollars and if fans of “The Notebook” get wind of it, he may pull it off.