Films like The Light Between Oceans are a tough and tricky task for some moviegoers, as pure, heartfelt, cinematic melodrama seems to be mostly out of fashion these days. I am not sure what some people were expecting from this visually lush, overtly sentimental, yet extremely dark film. While I would have preferred that this two hour and 10 minute effort had lasted closer to three hours in total, there’s lots to admire all throughout writer/director Derek Cianfrance’s newest and most polished motion picture, and it reinstates his inherent interest in family dramatics, passages of time, and the generational effects that major decisions and their consequences have on people’s lives.
In his previous films, the destructive marriage scorcher Blue Valentine and the tragically underrated crime drama The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance brought a Cassavetes-esque intensity to his stories and characters, allowing for moments of seeming spontaneity to bubble to the surface and inform the proceedings. In The Light Between Oceans, he’s telling a story that on the surface feels 1,000 miles removed from his previous studies of interpersonal discord and genre subversion, but when examined closely, there’s the same sense of tragedy and open-wound intensity to be found all throughout. And while The Light Between Oceans feels rushed in some spots where more time and discovery might’ve enriched the picture in general, there’s a sense of classical epic sweep mixed with delicate intimacy that hasn’t been seen on the big-screen all that much in recent memory.
Adapted from the 2012 novel by M.L. Steadman, Cianfrance has two of the best current actors leading his overwhelmingly beautiful film, with both Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender doing excellent work as tortured souls who have to spend most of their life dealing with the ramifications of their morally questionable behavior. Tom (Fassbender) is a lighthouse keeper and war veteran living off of the coast of Western Australia, at the tail end of WWI. He meets and quickly falls in love with a local woman named Isabel (Vikander), with the two of them heading off to their private island in search of happiness. Unfortunately, tragedy and despair is all that they encounter, as Isabel suffers multiple miscarriages, while it’s clear that motherhood is the one driving force in her heart. But everything changes when, miraculously, an infant washes ashore in a rowboat, along with the dead body of what they presume to be the child’s father or other relative. Rather than report the incident, Tom buries the body, and the couple begin raising the little girl as their own child; Isabel’s happiness is beyond compare. But their familial bliss is cut short when the girl’s real mother, an anguished and despondent Rachel Weisz, crosses paths with the illicit family, thus setting into motion a serious case of guilt for Tom, who starts to feel compelled to tell the truth.
The production values on this film are extraordinary. Every single shot is museum quality. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (last year’s deliriously photogenic Macbeth) bathes a good portion of the movie in a golden hue which gives off a warmth which challenges the sad subject matter; it’s an interesting and unique dichotomy of aesthetics and thematics, reminding of the work done on the similarly gorgeous study of human suffering, The House of Sand and Fog. Jim Helton and Ron Patane’s velvety editing has a graceful spirit that, when in tandem with the luscious photography, recalls the artistic freedom of recent Terrence Malick pictures; there’s an internal hum and rhythm to this movie that’s interesting to observe. The production design by Karen Murphy and costume work handled by Erin Benach evoke a simpler time without ever calling attention to the period trappings. Alexandre Desplat’s alternately mournful and soulful musical score supplies dollops of sonic accompaniment, all but consuming Arkapaw’s eye-melting imagery.
And of course, the entire film is firmly anchored by the impassioned acting, which hits numerous notes of raw emotion which is now a customary expectation for any film from Cianfrance. And as usual, Cianfrance has gravitated towards flawed characters who aren’t easily likable at times, which is always more interesting to observe on screen. I just wish that the film had been given more time to breathe and ruminate upon its many internalized threads, as there’s nothing easy about the challenges that the characters find themselves in during the course of the story. But in the end, this is another forceful piece of work from Cianfrance, who clearly has an affinity for his actors and the unpredictable nature of life itself.
Written by Nick Clement