Film Review – The Light Between Oceans
The Light Between Oceans
Great acting can carry a story. And you can’t get a better cast of contemporary actors than those featured in the new drama The Light Between Oceans. While the basics of the plot may at first blush seem overdone, a top notch troupe of performers combined with some controlled directing make for an emotionally deep experience.
The film begins in 1918. Michael Fassbender stars as Tom, a very reserved British veteran who wants to retreat from the world after experiencing the horrors of war. He accepts a job at a remote lighthouse on an island near a rural coastal English town. This lighthouse can only be approached by boat. But the posting is seen as very important. Remember this was the time when maritime travel would have been amongst the most essential services in the world. So the townsfolk seem to afford the lighthouse the same kind of priority we would now give air traffic control. After succeeding at it for some time, he meets the daughter of one of the families in town who hosts him for meals. Played by Alicia Vikander, Isabel is an earnest and bright young woman. She may be a bit overly smitten the way young people are, but mostly it is genuinely sweet. For both of them this is a love-at-first-sight scenario.
They marry and start a life at their remote permanent home at the lighthouse. Contented happiness ensues until a couple of failed attempts at parenthood occur. It is a harsh reality that they can’t seem to bring a baby to term. Isabel becomes overwhelmingly depressesed. This is set during a time when a woman’s whole identity would’ve been tied to her ability to be a mother. So it’s apparent that this is a very existential crisis for her. One windy day by pure happenstance, a row boat washes ashore on their beach with an unknown dead man inside clutching a still living young baby. Even though it is morally and legally wrong, they decide to keep the child for their own. Without giving more away, of course problems ensue.
In a less assured directorial hand, this material could have been severely overwrought and melodramatic. A lot of this plot is based on soap operatic elements and coincidence. Fortunately, Derek Cianfrance, whose previous work includes Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines, is more interested in quiet longing than anything else. He gives the actors room to work. And he knows that we don’t need to be bludgeoned to death with the heavy emotions on the screen. The Light Between Oceans is quiet and subtle to it’s credit.
Fassbender is one of the best screen actors working today. This guy has range and depth that constantly amazes. Here, he is great at conveying the world-weariness of an ex-soldier who feels guilt and loss. The actor doesn’t have any big speeches about what he saw in the war. In fact, Tom is a character of very few words. Fassbender seems to wear his sorrow like a cloak. We know a lot about him even though we aren’t told all that much. This makes his love of his wife earned and believable. To Tom, the sun rises and sets with Isabel. But his sense of duty and moral compass are constantly at odds with the deep love he feels.
Meanwhile, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Vikander got another Oscar nomination from this role. She is magnificent. Early on, her love of Tom and joy are infectious without feeling cheesy. Later, when she is depressed, here sorrow is palpable as well. The scene where she begs Tom to keep the orphaned child instead of turning it in is heart-breaking. This is a desperate woman. No malevolent. Just desperate. And none of it feels phony. Vikander has a whole range of emotions to deal with in this film. She is a powerhouse actress.
Rachel Weisz is also quite effective in her role as well. She has a source of sorrow all her own later in the story. Even the smallest supporting roles are well acquitted. It’s nice to see the older Austrailian star Jack Thompson in a visible role again. Here he plays the kindly boat captain who makes runs out to the lighthouse. And the villagers in town all feel plucked from an old book about post-war England.
Admittedly, the bare bones plot of this movie could be seen as soap operatic. There’s no question that this is old fashioned melodrama. But the execution is subdued enough to offset the potential sappiness. The movie poster and advertising campaign make this look like it’s going to be another manipulative weepy ala Nicholas Sparks. Even the name The Light Between Oceans serves as such an on the nose metaphor for their love playing itself out at a point where the oceans literally meet that it strains credulity (I have to admit my biggest complaint about this movie is the name itself; I swear it’s so generic I can’t seem to even remember it unless I am looking directly at it printed out). But as in most things, it’s the execution that counts here. The cast is a true standout. The emotions are earned. This movie is well worth seeing.