The Light Between Oceans

There is still a place in this world for a simple melodrama.  The Light Between Oceans is a straightforward story that puts its characters into untenable positions where they have to make their choices and pay the costs.  There are no superheroes, like in some of star Michael Fassbender’s other films.  Nor is this a gritty working class indie with method acting and grainy film stock like director Derek Cianfrance’s earlier work Blue Valentine.  This is a mainstream middle-brow drama with Oscar pretensions and hopes for a decent opening weekend.

Tom Sherbourne, played by Michael Fassbender, returns home to the western Australian coast from World War I with a sadness in his eyes and a huge dose of survivor’s guilt.  The only future he can see is one that he has to eke out, trying to live up to the incredible blessing, as he sees it, of living through four years on the Western Front.  He takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on an island off the west coast of Australia.  In the nearest town he meets Isabel Graysmark, played by Alicia Vikander, the pretty young daughter of a local official.  She draws him out of his reticence and eventually they marry.

It is a happy union until she starts having miscarriages and it becomes obvious that the couple can’t have children which they both desperately want.  Shortly after the second one, a boat washes up on the island with a dead man and a baby girl.  Tom feels strongly that they should contact the authorities but Isabel talks him out of it.  Nobody on the mainland yet knows about the second miscarriage and if they hide the man’s body, they can tell everybody that the baby is theirs.

Tom is never comfortable with this and his guilt increases when he discovers that the baby’s mother, Hannah Roennfeldt, played by Rachel Weisz, is actually alive and is grieving heavily for the loss of her husband and daughter.  What makes it worse is that she doesn’t know their fate.  It eats at Tom for several years until he finally acts.

This is a beautiful film with sprawling landscapes of overcast skies and rugged coastlines.  The colors are subdued and they nicely echo Tom’s reticent demeanor.  The shots are beautifully framed and steady.  The cinematography was done by Adam Arkapaw.

Likewise the performances are also low-key for the most part.  Michael Fassbender is one of the best actors working today and excels at almost every role he plays.  His emotional journey in this film plays out almost entirely on his face.  It is a masterful example of how to act on film.

Vikander is also terrific.  She does have a few moments of high drama and she handles them expertly.  I’ve stated my admiration for her before and this performance only strengthens my belief that she’s one of our best young actors.

This is a slow paced film.  It takes about half the film to set up the characters and the setting.  I didn’t really mind that most of the time because the characters were so compelling but there were times when I wished they would just get on with it.  As a consequence of the stately pace, when we get to the main conflict, half the film is over.  I won’t say the second half feels rushed; I don’t think that’s the word.  But the resolutions seems too easy.

There is a theme in this movie about forgiveness and leaving the past in the past.  The symbol of the lighthouse on an island near the intersection of two oceans is key to the theme of the movie.  One of the minor characters in a flashback says the forgiveness is easier because you only have to do it once, whereas keeping up hatred takes effort.  I have no idea if this is Cianfrance’s theme in his screenplay or if it is in the novel by M.L. Stedman upon which the movie’s based, but it is patently untrue.  I offer the state of the world as my proof.  The fact is that it is very hard to let go of grudges and to forgive injuries.  It is a process that takes time and effort and that comes only with familiarity with the object of hatred.  Ironically that process is depicted in the movie but I’m not sure that the filmmakers noticed.

At any rate, The Light Between Oceans is a good old-fashioned drama and you should see it.

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