The Light Between Oceans Sees Its Sumptuous Romance Washed Away
Promising leads crash into a rocky plot.
Melodramatic romance gets a bad rap. When one as austere as the babynapping tearjerker The Light Between Oceans washes up on our shores, it can be difficult to remember beyond the frayed nerves left by endless Nicholas Sparks adaptations. But there is often a thick richness to these films, like the sumptuous oil paintings of Vermeer, that washes over us if we let it.
In this one, a man who has just returned from the Great War tends an isolated island lighthouse so far from civilization that the last keeper lost his mind. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) just wants somewhere to unwind from the combat horrors that have stripped his face of emotion and his personality of joy.
With any strong and silent lead, you run the risk of being too silent. The film opens with a quietness and propensity to put you to sleep comparable to the cozy aftermath of a Thanksgiving dinner, but fortunately the boredom is broken by a powerfully directed relationship.
Tom and local girl Isabel (Alicia Vikander) get hitched after a frustratingly ascetic courtship and he moves a subtle inch back towards civilization. But as the couple warms to each other at the lighthouse, the seclusion soon gives way from honeymoon solace to social withdrawal after a series of wrenching miscarriages.
The island they’re on is called Janus Rock, named for the Roman god of transitions (birth and death, war and peace, beginning and end), and it weathers the brutality of nature to become their sanctuary and prison. It overlooks the confluence that ships traverse between seas, which takes on added meaning when this sacred passage delivers the one thing the couple couldn’t get for themselves: a baby.
The wailing infant floats in a rowboat manned only by the corpse of her father, and the couple race to its rescue with a desperation bordering madness. Temptation and innocence manifest in the nuclear need that could make their family complete. They fail to report the boat – a decision that dutiful Tom fights against – and embrace the newly named Lucy as their own.
Lucy jumpstarts the film. Happiness radiates from every frame of this family’s life together on their personal heaven. The landscape may be rocky and the waves always choppy, but the impossibly cute toddler that Lucy grows into (played by Florence Clery, a fountain of bubbly charm) makes every rock, stump, and fenced chicken glow. The warmth of the relationships here tempers the intensity of the couple’s acting into sincere performances.
Before and during their criminal parenthood, the two leads craft a romance without words, only movements. Their losses feel monumental and bring them closer together through intense close-ups that would shatter lesser actors. The decisions of director Derek Cianfrance are brutal and unrelenting, and the actors keep pace.
Small gestures and messy emotions escape their scrunched faces as tears and snot bring an earthiness to a decidedly blue-collar love. It’s refreshing to see stars allow themselves this vulnerability, though some of our pleasure in it comes from schadenfreude. We’ve all ugly-cried before, but seeing two of the most beautiful people alive do it to its highest potential satisfies we of average looks and similarly delicate emotions in some perverse way.
They’re down on our level, Fassbender letting rivulets escape his stony mask and Vikander fraying after each loss. Their characters are shown as so sympathetic that this is is where we see their imperfections, not in their actions.
Eventually the story crosses the sea to the mainland so Lucy can meet Isabel’s parents, and the sentimental excess hamstrings its emotional reveals. There the film’s introduction of Lucy’s birth mother (Rachel Weisz, nuanced and shellshocked) also inspires guilty confessions (in the form of letters) and teary fights (leading to scrawled notes of passion) from the couple when we’re already run ragged.
Adapting M.L. Stedman’s 2012 novel, Cianfrance goes for every early emotional body blow possible, weakening our responses to later moments of impact by sheer exhaustion. How many tearily voice-overed letters can one movie possibly hold? Plot points are indelicate and obvious, marring the richly-painted relationship of the couple like graffiti, and only spin the characters in place. Enamored with its twists, more and more details clog the complex emotional well that the story already pumps.
The notion of selfishness, especially that it can become an unconscious philosophy when separated from people – by an ocean, culture, technology, or personality – is lost and replaced with the uncoordinated grasping that Tom does trying to assuage his guilt. Isabel, too often relegated to screams or single tears, begins feeling insincere thanks to her repeated scenes of silence.
Separating and diagnosing the interior lives of characters is far easier on the page. When done in film it can bounce between the extremes of on-the-nose soliloquies and vacantly vague stares into the distance. A Light Between Oceans opts for the latter, despite its detours into criminal justice and underwritten side characters, which is an elegant flaw. Boring and beautiful can be better than grandiose and derivative, especially in this genre. When it avoids the pitfalls of Sparks adaptations, the film revels in lavish maturity, but it’s often too clumsy to do full service to its talents.