'The Light Between Oceans' Is Dimmed by Predictable Melodrama

by J.R. Kinnard

2 September 2016

Cianfrance’s adaptation of the popular novel is an agonizing and deathly cold slog in shallow waters.
cover art

The Light Between Oceans

Director: Derek Cianfrance
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz

US theatrical: 2 Sep 2016
UK theatrical: 4 Nov 2016

The Light Between Oceans is an exquisitely photographed, handsomely acted melodrama that desperately wants to be a romantic classic. Unfortunately, director Derek Cianfrance’s adaptation of M. L. Stedman’s popular novel is an agonizing and deathly cold slog. The wafer-thin story plays out exactly as expected, which makes enduring over two hours of soul-crushing misery feel even more punishing. There is a good story hidden somewhere in The Light Between Oceans, but it will take more than a fancy lighthouse to find it.

Things start on a promising note, with a first act that boasts delicate characterizations and Adam Arkapaw’s stunning cinematography.  Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is just back from France, where he spent four years fighting for Australia in World War I. He’s had a bellyful of killing and is interested in quieter, more solitary pursuits. When he’s offered the position of lighthouse keeper at the Janus 14 island outpost, Tom jumps at the chance to abscond from society.

For a man stuck between the future and the past, Janus—named after the two-faced Roman god—is the perfect place to hide. There, Tom keeps himself busy making repairs from the unrelenting wind and rain that batter the island. The sound design in The Light Between Oceans is Oscar caliber, with a percussive barrage of thundering surf and howling winds occasionally interrupted by an almost deafening silence. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Alexandre Desplat’s overbearing piano score, which quickly overstays its welcome and then insists on staying longer.

Tom’s self-imposed exile is interrupted by a plucky mainlander named Isabel (Alicia Vikander). She lost both of her brothers to the war and feels the pressure of being her parent’s only surviving child. At a time of such global instability, it’s not surprising that Tom and Isabel’s courtship is brief. They exchange several googly-eyed letters proclaiming their love for each other (a lazy and boring device employed heavily throughout the film), get married, and then head back to Tom’s lighthouse paradise to start a family.

These early scenes on Janus are luminous. Sprawling vistas of sheared ocean waves glinting in the sunlight resemble rolling sand dunes, while the rugged island coastline seems to jut straight up from the water’s edge. And always, the magnificent lighthouse frames every shot; a beacon of salvation to passing ships and a symbol of doom for Tom and Isabel’s hopes for a normal life.

Sadly, the assured direction of Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines [2012]) in these early passages grows more lethargic and ham-fisted as the melodramatic plot unfolds. What starts as an understated character piece about loss and healing devolves into an unconvincing morality play. Unable to have a child of their own, Tom and Isabel “adopt” an infant that washes ashore in the arms of her dead father (Leon Ford). Years later during a visit to the mainland, they discover that the infant’s mother, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), has been desperately searching for her lost daughter the entire time. Oops.

After spending nearly half the film constructing the scaffold for a contemplative adult drama, Cianfrance throws his story on autopilot for the second half. Flashbacks and montages replace the arresting visuals. Blubbering and hysterics replace the quiet moments of reflection. Oh, and there’s the little matter of the film’s driving forces—Fassbender, Vikander, and the lighthouse—completely disappearing for large chunks of time. It’s ironic that once the lighthouse is gone, The Light Between Oceans loses its way.

Instead, the script focuses on the completely uninteresting story of Hannah. It’s a thankless role for the talented Weisz, who spends most of her time sobbing and trying to keep the audience from hating her too much. Story beats are repeated and belabored to the point of exhaustion, as the two grief stricken mothers leverage their beloved daughter in a battle to be the biggest martyr. Tom fares even worse, spending most of his time off screen, probably brooding and thinking deep thoughts.

All of the performances are first rate, which makes the predictability of the film’s conclusion even more frustrating. For a film this deliberately paced, predictability quickly translates to boredom and apathy. Fassbender and Vikander scorch the screen with their chemistry, but this shallow story prevents them from taking their characters into new and exciting directions. We should yearn for these characters to be blissfully happy together. Instead, we’re just too miserable and worn down to even care.

When The Light Between Oceans understands that it is a ghost story, not a custody drama, it truly excels. In the aftermath of a cataclysmic world war, there are ghosts everywhere, both living and dead. Tom and Isabel jettison the ghosts of their past to forge a new life together; to fortify the dream that love and happiness can still exist in a world consumed by death and insanity. These are the stories that inspire us. Watching two women fight over a traumatized child is not inspiring . . . it’s depressing.

The Light Between Oceans


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