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THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS (2016) review

September 19, 2016

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written by: Derek Cianfrance
produced by: David Heyman and Jeffrey Clifford
directed by: Derek Cianfrance
rated: PG-13 (for thematic material and some sexual content)
runtime: 132 min.
U.S. release date: September 2, 2016

 

Writer/director Derek Cianofrance is a confident and astute filmmaker who has a knack for bringing unconventional stories to the big-screen. In “Blue Valentine” he told the story of the matrimonial dissolution of a seemingly happy young couple and in the epic and ambitious “The Place Beyond the Pines” he offered a look the cause and effect life choices have across generations. Both films have something in common with his latest film “The Light Between Oceans”, which is that they all include human fallibility and a yearning to right wrongs. This film, which Cianfrance adapts from the best-selling 2012 novel from M.L. Stedman, is different in that its a period piece and an ode to the sweeping romances that studios used to release long ago. It’s unconventional in that it’s more of a melodramatic tragedy than it is a straight-up romance, which is something I welcome. Propelled by strong performances from three award-winning actors, the “The Light Between Oceans” is a compelling, yet distant tale of love and grief, despite some of its storytelling flaws.

The film opens in December 1918, where we find veteran Tom Sherbourne  (Michael Fassbender), who returns home to a coastal town in Western Australia after serving in World War I.  Haunted by his experiences there, he takes a job temporarily filling a spot as a lighthouse keeper at Janus Rock, that offers solitude and responsibilities that will hopefully distract from his trauma. But then, after one particular trip to the mainland, he meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), a woman with her own past trauma and is taken aback, drawn to her serene beauty.  She is attracted to Tom as well, pulled in by his quiet, focused ways and strong ethics. She brings a warmth his withdrawn coldness desperately needs. The two fall in love as they correspond through letters and soon get married. Not long after their wedding they try to start a family, which is followed by a painful period of heartbreak as Isabel experiences two tragic miscarriages, distraught by her inability to carry a baby full term.

 

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Their world changes forever, when a row-boat floats to shore carrying a dead man and a crying baby one day. Tom immediately wants to report the incident to his employers back at the mainland, but Isabel pleads him to reconsider, stating it was fate that led this baby to them, considering their recent attempts at parenthood. A reluctant Tom agrees, knowing his wife has already been through enough. Burying the dead man on the island and keeping the infant to raise as their own daughter, the couple name her Lucy and introduce her to Isabel’s family.

Years pass without anyone asking about a man lost at sea with a baby and then, when it is time for Lucy’s christening, Tom notices a grieving woman kneeling in front of a gravestone. He eventually learns her name is Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz) and she is mourning the loss of her husband Frank as well as their daughter not too long ago. Instinctively knowing what this means, Tom is now filled with unbearable guilt and once Isabel learns of the truth, the couple struggle to come to terms with their decision and the inevitable reality that Lucy’s birth mother will soon know that her child is alive.

 

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This is a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking film. There’s just no getting around it. Yes, it starts with two wounded souls finding love, but the crippling heartbreak of the two miscarriages really puts a viewer through the ringer – at least it had that effect on me, thank to the amazing work from Vikander here and knowing friends in my life who’ve endured multiple miscarriages. I will never understand how it feels to know that you have a body that is unable to bring life into the world, but I know it can be a terrible thing to accept. The thing is, we need these excruciating scenes to understand Isabel’s immense grief and eventual motivation behind her wanted to keep someone else’s baby. It’s understandable, but it doesn’t make it right. Her emotions have overwhelmed her and have justified her thought process. Those scenes also provide an understanding as to why someone like Tom would commit to go along with his broken wife and raise someone else’s child.

That’s just the beginning of the tragedy we see in “The Light Between the Oceans” however. We’re shown sequences of the couple raising this sweet and adorable child (played as a baby by Elliot and Evangeline Newbery and as a one-year-old as Georgie Jean Gascoigne), all while knowing the building knot in Tom’s stomach over the whole situation, especially once he learns that Lucy’s mother is living on the mainland with the knowledge that her husband and baby died at sea. It’s hard to be completely happy for Tom and Isabel in this case. One of them has completely given into a life (perhaps it is also the isolation of the lighthouse that contributed to Isabel’s emotional decision), while another is slowly dying inside as he sees the consequences of their decision. You know they eventually must face the music and that will bring even more heartbreak.

Before these challenging scenes though, I found myself thoroughly swept up in the glacial pace and serene imagery Cianfrance and Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (“Top of the Lake”, “True Detective” and last year’s “MacBeth”) provide to the story. The beautiful melodic score by Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desalt help complement the tone and feel of the film too. As I watched the shots of the tides and the sunsets along the horizon and the precarious terrain of the island, I realized this is how I would want to take in these environments. It’s just a nice change to slow down and slowly take in characters and their environment in film and I must say, they really make the life of a lighthouse keeper as quite an attractive occupation. No boss breathing down your neck, no nosy or annoying co-workers and no traffic jams getting to and from work. But then again, the last guy who worked the lighthouse before Tom, went crazy and tried to kill himself, so there is the possibility of the desolate location could mentally take its toll. Its picturesque location is alluring, but the isolated life it calls for isn’t for everyone.

 

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Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander are two of the my favorite working actors. They continue to show their range, both having successfully played robots and will soon appear as video game action heroes – here we see them as fractured lovers caught in an emotional dilemma. Fassbender plays Tom with nobility and a cold reserve that melts away once Isabel enters his life, but once that decision is made, the coldness comes back in the form of a building guilt that will inevitably overpower him. Isabel is probably the more complex character of the two and Vikander is absolutely mesmerizing in how she navigates the emotions her character must experience. Is Isabel selfish? Maybe. Are her actions understandable? Yes, but that doesn’t make them right. “The Light Between the Oceans” shows us how our pain and feelings will get in the way of doing what’s right.

The other challenging role is the third one played by Rachel Weisz, who plays a character that I found myself wishing we had more time with. Weisz captures Hannah’s helplessness, guilt and grief in an exquisite manner. She carries herself in such a way that she is almost embarrassed or feels responsible for  her husband Frank (Leon Ford) taking off in a boat with their infant. In her flashbacks, we see that Hannah and Frank supposedly had a sweet relationship, that was frowned upon by her rich father, Septimus Potts (Bryan Brown) and the townspeople, all because Frank was German. There’s too much missing in the story here though and that’s one of my biggest problems with the story. Finding a boat with a crying baby and a dead man is a huge thing and a pivotal point in the narrative. So, the questions that arise are, “how and why did this happen?”

Supposedly, the book goes into more detail as to why Frank decided to essentially run away with their child, but the film is too vague about this detail. I understand that this adaptation is primarily focusing on Tom and Isabel, but what transpired between Frank and Hannah seems equally important – at least to understand how they were lost at sea. It seems to me there’s a missed opportunity to show the emotional struggles this other couple had also and the equally life-changing decision Frank made as well. If only there was a bit more revealed about Frank and his decision, we would then have a film with two emotionally-charged pivotal decisions that changed the course of direction for both couples forever.

Despite these flaws, I found myself swept up in this bittersweet and somber tale. It begs the question whether or not happiness can be found (and maintained) under such emotional complexities. When you’re in the throngs of making a decision that is fueled solely on emotion, there’s no way to have the forbearance of the consequences that will come. I can’t help but to think how these decisions are made by people all the time, often with good intentions that stem from hurting souls. The film definitely won’t find viewers leaving with a whelming feeling, but rather a sobering reminder of how love and grief can often be blinding emotions.

The conclusion of “The Light Between Oceans” feels a bit rushed. Not having read the book, I’m not sure if the treatment of Isabel ends in the same manner, but she seems kind of slighted here. In the end, we see an older Tom, still haunted but this time by a love lost instead of the war. There is a heartwarming element to the final note of the film, but it’s ending is ultimately a sad epitaph to a tragic love story.

 

Oscar (TM) winner Rachel Weisz is Hannah Roennfeldt and Bryan Brown is Septimus Potts in the poignant drama THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, written and directed by Derek Cianfrance and based on the acclaimed novel by M.L. Steadman.

 

RATING: ***

 

 

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