Having directed 2010’s Oscar-nominated Blue Valentine as well as 2013’s The Place Beyond the Pines, director Derek Cianfrance has quickly established himself as a director of unique, often melancholy works. His latest film, an adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s acclaimed novel The Light Between Oceans, somewhat continues that trend. However, it also marks a largely disappointing shift for the auteur, one to the realm of melodrama.
The film follows Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a veteran of the Great War searching for solitude. Believing he’s found it in a new job as a lighthouse keeper on the remote Australian island of Janus Rock, he heads off, spending several months in seclusion. Tom eventually falls for Isabel (Alicia Vikander), the sweet but scarred daughter of a nearby wealthy family. Soon, the two are married, living in Tom’s idyllic home near the lighthouse.
Catastrophe strikes, however, after a series of miscarriages drive Isabel to near-insanity, leaving her and Tom’s marriage on the brink of disaster. That is, until a small wooden dinghy washes onto Janus’ shores. Inside, the couple find a man, dead from exhaustion, and his baby, no more than a few weeks old. Tears in her eyes, Isabel begs her husband to allow the child into their lives, whispering to him those all too false words: “We’re not doing anything wrong.” Despite his obvious reservations, Tom permits Isabel this crime, naming the baby Lucy and claiming it as their own.
A composed period piece if ever one existed, The Light Between Oceans plays it safe all too often, its constant stream of sadness less a force for thought and more a cue for the audience’s eyes to well up. This is most evident in the laughably saccharine coda. Cianfrance set out looking to craft a mix of the films of directors David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) and John Cassavetes (Faces), but this story is more akin to the works of Nicholas Sparks than anything.
Luckily, the weak material is mightily elevated by the performances. Fassbender proves once again that he’s arguably the finest actor working today; his steely gaze captures the haunted nature of Tom expertly. Vikander is his equal as Isabel, beautifully portraying the character’s transition from a bright-eyed young woman to a “mother” broken by past losses. In fact, it’s Fassbender and Vikander’s exceptional chemistry that lets the film work as much as it does, their relationship unwaveringly believable.
The supporting cast also shines, with Rachel Weisz as a true standout. As the true mother of Lucy, Weisz enters the film at the halfway point and brings the kind of heartbreaking intensity required for a role entirely conceived around the feeling of loss. This may just be the Oscar-winning performer’s best work yet.
What The Light Between Oceans lacks in substance, it nearly makes up for in style. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography is wondrous, creating a palpable sense of isolation both on and off Janus. The score by Alexandre Desplat is just as great, the 8-time Oscar-nominated composer wringing out the tragedy of Tom and Isabel’s tale throughout.
Despite its regular veering into predictable melodrama and failure to take any kind of chances, The Light Between Oceans is an exceptionally well-performed, and at times thought provoking, rumination on loss, guilt, and ultimately forgiveness.