The Light Between Oceans Review

Posted: September 17, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

the-light-between-oceans-1-600x891Written by Daniel Simpson

In 2010, Derek Cianfrance made a bold breakthrough as a filmmaker with the heart-wrenching work Blue Valentine. Though that film was seldom seen by the general public (due in large part to a nonsensical NC-17 rating over “controversial” subject matter), the film did make a big impression with critics, film buffs, and those in the business. Cianfrance’s follow-up, The Place Beyond the Pines, opened to wider audiences, but to considerably less acclaim. Critics seemed to mostly like it, but the response was a lot more muted and the film seemed to slip from memory pretty quickly. I did not share this perspective. I found The Place Beyond the Pines to be a quietly stirring work which has stuck with me since first viewing. The film made my top ten movies of 2013 that year and if I made the list again today it would still hold a prominent spot. As such, I’ve been optimistically looking forward to Cianfrance’s next effort. That effort has turned out to be his most mainstream set; a melodramatic romance set on an island called The Light Between Oceans. The film has received Cianfrance’s weakest reviews yet but I have faith in the man and thus went to the theater undeterred.

The film begins after the First World War and follows Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a veteran shaken by the horrors he has witnessed as well as survivor’s guilt. Tom takes a job as a light house operator on a small island of the coast of Australia, looking for isolation. On the job however, Tom quickly meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander) a young woman who lost her brothers in war. The two start a courtship which soon leads to a blissful and happy marriage. This happiness comes to be threatened by the couple’s attempts to have a child, which repeatedly end in miscarriages. Their fates change however when a boat washes up on their shores carrying a frightened infant and a young dead man. Tom wishes to report the incident, but is convinced by Isabel to take the child in as their own. The consequences of this choice will ripple through for years and change their lives forever.

Watching the film, it soon become apparent why so many critics have reacted negatively to The Light Between Oceans. This is a very melodramatic story which takes some highly implausible plot turns. The very concept of an infant happening to come to Tom and Isabel from the sea is far-fetched, but the ensuing interactions, chance meetings, and decisions also stretch credibility. Much as that’s true though, I don’t see it as an inherent flaw. This isn’t a film that shies away from melodrama after all, but one that embraces it wholeheartedly. The cinematography and score are both very big and emotional, as are the performances. Thus, the right tone is set for a melodramatic story. Additionally, while the phrase “melodrama” is often used synonymously with “bad”, the execution here is anything but. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography is gorgeous and makes great use of the natural landscape, and Alexandre Desplat’s piano-heavy score is very moving. Finally, the performances here are all very strong, which I’m sure isn’t very surprising given the pedigree of the cast. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander both build distinct characters with very specific and involving arcs. The two also play off of each other marvellously (it’s not surprising to read the two have been dating since meeting on set). Rachel Weisz also plays a crucial role here, and while her character isn’t quite as nuanced as Tom or Isabel, Weisz still brings her all to the part. All three actors are put through a real emotional ringer and deliver in spades.

The first act of the film is a very involving romance between Tom and Isabel that eventually turns tragic with the couple’s inability to have kids. The romance is certainly very well realized, and Cianfrance also portrays tragedy very well with some very poignant moments. However the film becomes a lot more challenging once the infant girl comes to Tom and Isabel. I say challenging because while we as an audience are sympathetic to Tom and Isabel and understand their actions, there’s also little denying that their choice to simply keep the child as their own was morally wrong. True, an argument could be made that they are doing what they think is best for the child (an argument which Isabel herself makes), but it’s not entirely clear how much of this is true. In that sense, The Light Between Oceans touches on one of the running themes of Cianfrance’s work, the choices of parents and the consequences on their children. Of course, Tom and Isabel are not the girl’s biological parents, but they certainly take on those roles and their actions dramatically shape the girl’s life for better or for ill. However that theme as not as prominent here as it was in The Place Beyond the Pines. Actually, real thematic focus of The Light Between Oceans is survivor’s guilt. It’s made apparent from the start that Tom is haunted by his war experiences and that carries over to his taking of the child. A common element of survivor’s guilt is the afflicted feeling as though they have “stolen” life from others. This manifests itself literally in Tom stealing the baby’s life from another. It’s not a perfect metaphor of course, but it does accurately represent how Tom feels.

There’s a lot to admire about The Light Between Oceans. It’s a beautifully made film, it has great acting, and the story has some real thematic ambitions. Unfortunately, the film starts to weaken considerably in the third act. I’ve defended a lot of the melodramatic aspects of the story, but the film does start to present some really contrived events which tested even my patience. To make matters worse, the film seems to stretch on for an eternity during its finale continuing after many logical end-points before finally settling with the least interesting one. I don’t want to give the impression that I hated the ending, in fact it does at least play into the film’s themes of forgiveness and overcoming tragedy, but it’s far too clean and unchallenging. This third act is problematic, but on the whole The Light Between Oceans is still fine cinema and well worth seeing. The disappointing third act may bring down the whole, but it also doesn’t erase how compelling I find the first two thirds to be. Is this Derek Cianfrance’s worst film? Probably, but as far as worst movies go, this is pretty damn good.

B+

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