Director Derek Cianfrance has explored romance to great degrees before with his acclaimed film Blue Valentine. He followed that up with the multi-generational crime drama The Place Beyond the Pines. With his latest feature, The Light Between Oceans, Cianfrance finds himself back in romance territory, but from a new direction. The story, adapted from a novel by M.L. Stedman, is more in line with something Thomas Hardy could have come up with. With lush locations and a strong cast and score, the film overcomes its melodramatic weight and tear-jerker sensibilities to work overall.
Michael Fassbender stars as Tom, a WWI veteran who is suffering from thoughts on all the horrible sights he had seen in battle. He chooses to become a lighthouse keeper, living alone on an island off the coast of Western Australia. Before taking on this job, however, he meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who manages to win his heart. The two eventually marry, but their love is tainted by miscarriage.
It is of course upsetting for this couple to deal with a tragedy such as this, but the story brings in a new wrinkle in the form of a baby, who washes ashore on a rowboat in the arms of a dead man. A film must tread carefully in a situation like this, but Cianfrance has armed himself with good enough actors to make the rest of this plot remain compelling. Due to emotion and desperation, Isabel convinces Tom to keep the baby for themselves, rather than report her. The two are allowed a sense of happiness until the presence of Hannah (Rachel Weisz) arrives before Tom and leaves him racked with guilt.
Some may already be aware of certain things that have to happen when it comes to a story of a lost child, but the film is not about surprising audiences with new story ideas. The Light Between Oceans works best as an atmospheric tale wearing its heart on its sleeve. No doubt many will feel the emotions that come pouring out of this film, but the admirable qualities stem from the production value and the commitment to character.
Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography is gorgeous from start to finish. Using Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania as filming locations, we see so many wonderful shots of land and ocean, it would almost be fine just taking in narration about these places or watching a more wordless story akin to a Terrence Malick film play out. Alexandre Desplat’s score only adds on to the effectiveness of conveying a particular mood.
On top of a great-looking film, you have three central performances that each aid the film. Fassbender’s ability to harbor drama and a sense of sadness within his face resonates quite well here, with part of a second act focusing on seeing him lighten up, which is also nice. Vikander has the trickier job of playing up the complexities that come with her decisions and how she deals with those around her as a result. However, the best work comes from Weisz, who manages to underplay the immense sadness that runs through her character for what seems like the entire duration of the film.
Make no mistake, this is a film that plays up its sadness. Ultimately it is about love, sacrifice and forgiveness; all melded into a pot of morality, but this story is not above trying to make the audience cry. For some, that will work. The Light Between Oceans is incredibly sincere about all it tries to accomplish, regardless of how problematic some of the story turns may be (especially in the final section of the film).
This aspect is what challenges Cianfrance, as he is forced to deftly balance the melodrama with an understanding of complexity. It is one thing to watch characters suffer or make poor choices, but it is another to allow us to see the actors contemplate these actions and portray the results, due to the ramifications of their choices. Fortunately you have a cast this good to make up for some story ideas that could be seen in a made-for-cable movie just as easily.
While not without its issues and manipulative elements, it is the cinematic eye of Cianfrance and his strong cast that makes The Light Between Oceans a film for those in need of a romantic drama that doesn’t have Nicholas Sparks’ name attached. There’s plenty of good qualities to take in and flawed humans to judge, as you watch a complicated story playout. Add to that an overall theme of love and understanding and there is enough here to appreciate.