Film Review: The Light Between Oceans

Certain segments of today’s moviegoing audience may indeed be yearning for a wonderful, old-fashioned tearjerker. But although Derek Cianfrance’s 'The Light Between Oceans' is old-fashioned, and a tearjerker, it’s a long, long way from being wonderful.
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For those who have not read M.L. Stedman’s novel about the Australian lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne, a shell-shocked World War I veteran, and his bride, Isabel, it may not be immediately obvious why anyone thought their story would make an exciting or, at the very least, an interesting movie. For starters, it seems to take forever for anything to happen between these two, and once it does, another forever goes by before the inevitable complications ensue. Granted, the complications here are rather unusual and have the potential to be quite dramatic, but by the time they came along we were ready to doze off to the constant sounds of the stormy surf pounding against Australia’s Juno Rock.

The Light Between Oceans is that kind of movie: With so little action to engage our attention (for over two hours), we can either succumb to the nods or idly begin to keep track of the little things. Like, when the camera turns away from the frequent shots of stormy skies or pounding surf, it most often moves in for a really tight close-up of Tom (Michael Fassbender) or his beautiful but frequently hysterical wife, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who, in all fairness, has reasons to be hysterical.

These two meet just after Tom returns to Australia from four bitter years fighting in Europe to apply for the job at the lighthouse. Isabel is not shy about her interest in the handsome but diffident stranger, but although Tom definitely notices her, after seeing the horrors of war he’s looking forward to the reflective solitude of living alone in a lighthouse. (Tom is obviously suffering from what we now call Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.) Some months later, however, he makes a return visit to civilization and wastes no time in declaring his love for Isabel. Quicker than a dolphin’s leap, they get married and settle down on Juno Rock to have a family and live together, happily isolated ever after.

A couple of miscarriages later, however, Isabel is the one showing signs of psychological stress. One day after she’s just lost her second (or third?) child, a rowboat floats ashore carrying a dead man and a wailing, very-much-alive infant girl. Isabel sees the child as a gift from God, and she persuades Tom to go against his better judgment to report the find and say nothing so they can raise the baby girl as their own. After all, everyone in town knew that Isabel was pregnant, so she can just say her baby came early. Tom finally relents and buries the dead man, but he knows (and we know) he’ll never be able to forget what he has done.

A few years go by, and the child grows to be the smart, beautiful and animated toddler Lucy-Grace, and she seems supremely happy—as do her presumptive parents. But then their small family goes to a gathering in town, and among the guests who comes forward to comment on this perfect child is a rather sad woman, Hannah (Rachel Weisz). Later, someone explains to Tom and Isabel that Hannah is sad because, four years before, her husband and baby girl were lost at sea.

Well! The stalwart Tom must do something to let Hannah know her child is alive, yet he cannot blatantly betray the promise he made to his wife. Although he eventually finds a way to do what he thinks is the right thing, subsequent events leave him—and Isabel and Hannah and Lucy-Grace—in a legal limbo and unable to distinguish anymore between what’s right and what’s wrong. The ramifications of their fierce moral dilemma are undoubtedly more clearly explored in Stedman’s book than in Derek Cianfrance’s movie. There’s only so much intellectual angst and emotional torment you can wring from wide-angle shots of rolling waves, from the constant howling of powerful winds, or from static close-ups of a man and a woman holding onto each other and crying.

Incidentally, in this film, both Fassbinder and Vikander, not to mention Weisz, almost always seem on the verge of tears—a bit of directorial manipulation that may satisfy those who go to the movies specifically to have a good cry. But for the rest of us—well, sorry, the overt tearjerking smacks of barefaced manipulation, and in the end it gets really, really annoying.

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