Given the fact that two-time Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender and recent Oscar winner Alicia Vikander fell in love in real life shortly after working on The Light Between Oceans, it’s no surprise that the two of them work well together in the latest from director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines). From their first meet-up onward, Vikander and Fassbender have solid chemistry, and it’s easy to see the affection in their eyes as they play their respective parts.
But The Light Between Oceans is no happy-go-lucky, meet cute romance film. It’s a period piece drama that places its focus on the hardships of a marriage, and the tragic aftermath of decisions made by the people involved. Its themes are familiar to those explored in Cianfrance’s two previous efforts, but there’s something about the application here that doesn’t make it feel quite as raw-to-the-bone. In fact, while I admired the greatness of the film’s two leads, The Light Between Oceans left me feeling emotionally detached from the story that takes center stage.
It’s 1918. Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) has just returned to Australia after fighting in the Great War. In an attempt to seclude himself from the world and to gather his thoughts, he takes a position as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Island. But it’s before taking this position that he and a lovely lady name Isabel (Vikander) lock eyes. It’s practically love at first sight. They keep in contact via letter writing, and soon enough, they get hitched.
The two have a couple failed attempts at starting a family, and it leaves them both devastated. But a boat carrying a living, breathing infant – as well as a dead, adult body – washes up ashore. Tom wants to call the authorities and have the kid returned to her biological parent; Isabel wants them to keep the child and raise it as their own. As much as Tom does not like the idea of taking someone else’s child, he wants to make his wife happy. So they take the latter option, and their decision ends up with results more arduous than they could have expected.
There’s no denying that The Light Between Oceans is a gorgeous film. DP Adam Arkpaw captures some exquisite scenery of the Australian mainland and of the areas surrounding it. The film also has a beautiful score from Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat, despite the fact that one scene contains a track from his work on The Tree of Life. But the technicality aspects can only take a film so far.
When the conflict arises, and the child’s real mother (Rachel Weisz) appears, the film becomes desperate in wanting the viewer to feel sorry for Tom and Isabel. On one hand, yes, there is some sympathy felt toward the two. They’re great parents, and they seem like decent people. But there’s also the fact that they’re clearly in the wrong, making it difficult to side with them.
Cianfrance’s film, which is based on the M.L. Steadman novel of the same name, has the tendency to lean toward being melodramatic when it should be emotionally devastating. This is unfortunate, considering that what’s presented in front of us are things no one wants to experience in real life. Miscarriages, losing a child, and other scenarios here are just difficult to think about. Cianfrance has the opportunity to connect the viewer to these issues and leave them shattered like he did with Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. But with the way it plays out, it comes across feeling more artificial than it should.
This review also appears on Red Carpet Report.