The Light Between Oceans: Film Review
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender, Rachel Weisz, Emily Barclay, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Making great fist of the desolate New Zealand coast and aiming for emotional devastation but landing somewhere nearer trying experience, Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance's The Light Between Oceans aims big in its period affectations.
Beautifully shot and framed, The Light Between Oceans is the film adaptation of ML Steadman's post war story. Fassbender stars as Tom, a World War I veteran who simply wants to recover from the horrors of the Great War (or as he understates he's "just looking to get away from things"). Ending up in the Lighthouse service and asking for a posting on Janus Rock which overlooks the oceans, Tom meets Vikander's Isabel on the mainland and despite his withdrawn nature, an instant attraction blossoms.
The pair's marital bliss is hit by double tragedy with miscarriages and when a boat washes up with a dead man on board and a crying baby, Isabel pleads with Tom to raise the child as their own. Reluctantly, he agrees and the pair settle into a familial life, blissfully happy.
But years later, on the mainland, Tom meets the widow and grieving mother (a dignified and gravitas-filled Weisz) and a chain of events is guiltily set in motion.
The Light Between Oceans benefits from a great solemn first half, that hits all the emotional beats required.
In among some stunning cinematography and some melancholy moments that border on the darkness, Cianfrance draws the best from Vikander with some truly heartbreaking and devastating sequences playing out as Isabel loses two children (the first in the most harrowing of circumstances). But the film hits a stumbling block as it saunters towards the end (which no doubt is in large part the fault of source material) and negotiates both time jumps and desperation for closure, sacrificing the emotional heft that's needed to allow the choices to feel quite so cataclysmic for all involved.
Of the two actors, Vikander's the strongest and most adept at translating her arc to the screen, and while Fassbender's stoic outlook on Tom is nigh on aloof, he's helped by some choice morsels of dialogue that provide insight where characterisation on screen can not.
His ethos of "I just try to keep the light burning for whoever needs it" is laden with tragedy and selflessness but the implications of this lightkeeper doing more than his duty unfortunately never feel fully fleshed out on screen as the film slips into melodrama and divergent endings.
With Cianfrance using cutaways to the rolling oceans and the cruelty of nature a little too often to segue between it all, The Light Between Oceans struggles to really find its own voice in its back half. Granted, the emotion is there initially and it's hard not to get swept up in the bleak unfolding tragedy of Tom and Isabel; but the final strait and its long dawdling route to get there mean its emotional effectiveness is muted and stilted, despite some of the finest efforts of its central cast.
Never as devastating or as provocative as it should be, this effective translation of Steadman's source material may look rich on the exterior, but its core is flawed when others come into the picture and its attempts at emotional resonance are thwarted.