A Fine Romance Plays Out in ‘The Light Between Oceans’
“When it comes to the ocean anything’s possible.” After devastating audiences in 2010 with his romantic relationship drama Blue Valentine, director Derek Cianfrance hopes lightning strikes twice with his adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s best seller, The Light Between Oceans. With strong acting as its anchor, breathtaking cinematography accompanies this tale guaranteed to tug on those heartstrings.
Tom and Isabel (Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander) live on an isolated island called Janus. Tom is the lighthouse keeper, responsible for taking note of anything that washes ashore. The sea delivers unto the couple a bouncing baby in a rowboat, with the child’s dead father inside. Isabel wants to keep the child, believing it’s a miracle after two miscarriages, but Tom is wary of hiding the evidence.
The Light Between Oceans strongest defenders didn’t read the book (or so I’ve been told from friends who read the novel). Spanning several years, Cianfrance blends the improvisational foundations of a relationship with a stronger narrative about maternal love and romantic sacrifice. These two issues split the story into halves, with audiences left to say things take too long to develop or that we veer into an entirely different film by the end.
Tom and Isabel’s courtship and eventual marriage mark the first half. Tom suffers from the remnants of WWI and seeks isolation. When he meets Isabel, his interest in life is renewed; Isabel is, quite literally, full of life. Alicia Vikander sells Isabel as an angelic young woman with spirit, even if it’s cheesy to say so. Her moments opposite Fassbender are so natural that it’s no wonder they are currently dating; you can see their real-life romance on-screen.
Cianfrance’s penchant for setting Tom and Isabel’s love against a painterly canvas makes sense. Nearly every scene is punctuated in some way by Tom and Isabel taking in an exquisitely romantic sunset, the ocean swirling around them. When the plot finally kicks in these moments do distract, becoming so grandiose they’d make Terence Malick blush.
Fassbender, strangely enough, is set up as the dominate character. His moral compass with regards to the baby puts him at odds with his wife and his decisions dictate the film’s path. In talking with those who read the novel, his character loses a lot in translation. Fassbender has phenomenal chemistry with the child actors who play his adopted daughter, Lucy, but we never get his role in dictating her future. Time and again he reiterates his decisions are for Isabel alone, as if the script is afraid to make Tom admit his love for the little girl. Supposedly there’s significant exposition on Tom’s antipathy towards fatherhood that could reconcile his role better.
The ladies stand out despite Cianfrance’s desired focus on Fassbender. Alicia Vikander runs the gamut of emotions, from bright and bubbly to the pits of despair. Isabel, like Tom, has also seen death. She’s her parents only child after the loss of her brothers. With each miscarriage a piece of Isabel’s soul disappears. Cianfrance captures the anguish she feels at the realization that her own body is failing her, and the shame that results. Cianfrance turns the camera away when Isabel realizes she’s losing a child for a second time, giving the couple privacy as Isabel screams and Tom helplessly asks what to do.
Rachel Weisz and Vikander are the two mothers desperate to split the baby they love so much. Lucy’s arrival gives Isabel renewed strength, and it also gives The Light Between Oceans the narrative shot in the arm it needs. Isabel grapples with the fact that her child is the living dead, around the island but not with her. Weisz takes center stage as Hannah, Lucy’s biological mother, in these moments. Weisz isn’t drawn as the film’s villain; like Isabel she is also a victim of circumstances equally as tragic. Weisz’s narrative, overall, feel like an afterthought which is a shame because she does some phenomenal work opposite Florence Clery as Lucy.
Serious stakes and the battle for Lucy’s heart should be enough, but the third act goes somewhere else. Cianfrance takes the novel’s twist, involving murder, and turns that into the climactic issue. Though Tom and Isabel did commit a crime, Isabel’s “choice” to stand up for Tom or not never gels. Short of falling back on old tropes regarding women, it’s hard to fathom Isabel would let her husband swing, especially in light of the entire hour preceding us.
Your mileage will vary on The Light Between Oceans, common for many adaptations. Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz dominate, though the script doesn’t want them to. The third act drops us too far into “overwrought” territory, but the cinematography and acting make up for a lot.
Originally published at culturess.com on August 29, 2016.