The light between oceans

review by samantha mooney

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Derek Cianfrance, director of Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, is known for hitting nerves of pain in both his characters and the audience. Cianfrance’s examination of how actions and choices that are made to sustain relationships can have unforeseen consequences, regardless of the intentions behind them, is gripping and sombre. His new film, The Light Between Oceans, is no exception in its ability to explore dark places. The iconoclastic director has adapted M.L. Stedman 2012 period novel of the same title.

The Light Between Oceans is a powerful take on the human condition and loneliness, with Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) accepting a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a small island off the west coast of Australia, where he’ll be “the only living man one hundred miles in every direction.” Tom, haunted by the carnage he has witnessed in the World War 1, and bereft of kin, wants to be alone, away from civilization and its savagery. Fassbender, plays the role of Tom incredibly, his repressed agony delivered through only his gaze. He appears a man so internally wounded that he accepts this isolation as a punishment for his survival. However, his stoicism is tested when he meets the beautiful Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander). She is outspoken and passionate, and invites Tom to a picnic. After discerning the pain of their past (Isabel’s brothers were killed during the war), she asks Tom to marry her. Tom is numb and wants a solitary life, returning to the island, as Isabel returns home.  Months pass in a dreamy montage of tilting reeds, mercurial skies, crashing waves, panoramic vistas and lighthouse duties, over a soaring, dramatic score by Oscar winner, Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel). Tom cannot get Isabel out of his head and writes her a letter, and the pair court until Tom declares his love for her and asks for her hand in marriage. Tom returns to the mainland and the young couple get married. A perfect love story, so far.

The couple’s life on the island is captured in sweeping montage and elliptical glances by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Macbeth and the soon to be released Assassin’s Creed). The film is indeed awash of montage, with the coastlines of New Zealand and Australia lending their beauty to the screen. 

Tragedy eventually strikes the couple as Isabel miscarries twice. Her desire to have a child becomes all-consuming, so when a dead man and a baby washes up on Janus island in a little wooden boat an outlandish idea forms in Isabel’s mind: Tom and she will raise the baby as their own and not report the incident. After pleas from Isabel, Tom surrenders, setting in motion the calamities to follow.

The melodramatic build up is supposed to justify the decision they make but it is difficult to invest in their choice. The decision leads to predictable misery. We see years pass through more montage sequences of Lucy growing, all underscored by Desplat. While each scene is captivatingly shot, the action is ominous in light of their desperate decision. Rachel Weisz gives a remarkable performance as Hannah, a widow, and Cianfrance manages to perfectly connect the viewer to the character in only a handful of flashbacks.

The film amps up the melodrama, and ventures into Nicholas Spark territory towards the close. At 132 minutes long, with remarkable acting, an authenticity in both emotion and period detail, and breath-taking imagery, “The Light Between Oceans,” is a must see.