Written and Directed by Derek Cianfrance and adapted from the bestseller by M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans features a knockout cast in a story about love and loss. However, does the film hit all the right notes or is it too schmaltzy for today’s audiences?
Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is a veteran of The Great War and has returned to Australia seeking peace and solitude. He finds both in a job as a lighthouse keeper on the isolated Janus Rock, an island off Western Australia. On one of Tom’s return journeys back to the mainland, he meets a beautiful young woman names Isabel (Alicia Vikander) and the two begin a correspondence. When Tom returns again, the two are married and Isabel returns to Janus Rock with Tom. The couple are very much in love and soon, Isabel is pregnant. Sadly, she suffers a miscarriage and then a second. After the latest tragedy, a lifeboat washes up on the beach containing a dead man and a very alive baby girl. Tom, being an honest and responsible person, determines that he’ll report the incident, but Isabel sees the baby’s arrival as a gift or a sign from God. Unable to cause his wife any more pain, Tom reluctantly agrees that they will keep the baby. Years pass and on a trip to the mainland, Tom and Isabel make the acquaintance of Hannah (Rachel Weisz), a woman who lost her husband and baby daughter at sea. Tom begins to put together that his daughter, Lucy (Florence Clery), is actually Hannah’s daughter, Grace. Will Tom expose the truth or maintain the lie? And if he does the former, will Isabel ever forgive him?
The Light Between Oceans is a very traditional drama and a nice return by Cianfrance after 2012’s stellar The Place Beyond the Pines. It is a visually breathtaking film thanks to Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and has a fantastic cast. The story is suitably heartbreaking, but I felt that Tom’s discovery of the truth felt a little too convenient and I wasn’t completely satisfied with the development of Hannah’s character. Once it is revealed who she is, she is given some flashbacks to flesh out her character, but by the time she shows up, she is an outsider to the audience. The story is stacked in the favor of Tom and Isabel and even though you understand Hannah’s pain over losing her family, you feel yourself rooting for Tom and Isabel to keep Lucy. Also, a lot of events in this film seem to happen way too fast. I know that the story takes place in a different time and coming out of the First World War, people might be inclined to get married just out of the blue, but Tom and Isabel’s courtship is a little rushed and once Hannah is revealed, the story kind of picks up a lot of speed, which in a case like this, I wasn’t too happy with. I wanted the film to really take its time and delve into all the emotions of it all. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, many of Hannah’s scenes are flashbacks and they felt quite distant and separate from the rest of the story, so her story didn’t fully resonate with me like Tom and Isabel’s.
The three leads are really great here. Fassbender delivers another standout performance as the stoic Tom. He’s really killing it these days with some magnificent work over the last few years. Weisz is very good as Hannah even though I felt her part was a little underwritten. She expertly captures the sadness and exasperation of a shattered woman tentatively trying to put things back together. For my money, though, the true star of this film is Vikander as Isabel. She has the most emotionally taxing scenes and she knocks them all out of the park. Even if I hadn’t seen The Danish Girl last year, seeing The Light Between Oceans shows that her Oscar was well deserved.
Overall, The Light Between Oceans is a very good drama that is just short of being great. It feels a lot like a classic Hollywood drama and is propelled by stunning visuals and a great cast. Cianfrance continues to deliver very good films, but I’m still waiting for a masterpiece from him. I think he’s on the verge of delivering it.