The Light Between Oceans (2016) by Derek Cianfrance
Review by Zach Dennis
It is easy to become entranced with the first hour or so of The Light Between Oceans, the latest film from writer/director Derek Cianfrance, because of how swimmingly romantic it plays. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander are two of the most talented (and beautiful) actors working today and their natural connection creates a bond with the audience as well as the visuals by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw pulls the eyes in.
The two main characters falling in love is as warm and genuine as the textures around them, but real life comes into play too quickly and the insertion of a child causes both narrative and cinematic problems, dragging The Light Between Oceans into the sea with the tide.
It is frustrating that Cianfrance didn’t stick with the mood and narrative he set in place over the course of the film’s first hour. Tom (Fassbender) and Isabel (Vikander) fall deeply in love and share a personal, secluded romance as Tom works as the lighthouse keeper on an island in the middle of the sea. You feel the intensity of their relationship, which is more a compliment to the work of these two actors.
Known more for capturing the unhinged intensity of his characters, Fassbender is much more restrained than he has been in the past with roles in Fish Tank, Shame, or 12 Years a Slave. Tom is much more stoic and contemplative than Edwin Epps, Brandon, or Conor. Fassbender sells the silence with his powerful eyes, which allow him to keep the intensity that he is known for in his acting while holding back and restraining himself from losing his grip.
He doesn’t have to loosen up because he has Vikander there to play that role. While she has had more range with her recent characters, she plays Isabel with unbridled calmness and allows herself to unleash whenever the narrative requires it. This happens often as Tom and Isabel run into a snag after two miscarriages leave the couple tortured and saddened until a baby washes ashore at the lighthouse.
In this moment, the couple must decide whether they want to keep the baby — and bury the man’s body that came with it — and pretend that it is there’s or report the incident and try to adopt the baby in a more proper fashion. Naturally, they chose the first option and live out their lives with the child for three years before Tom runs into a grieving widow named Hannah (Rachel Weisz), who lost her husband and child at sea after an accident.
The couple is required to make another choice: tell Hannah what they’ve done and face the punishment or go on living their façade. Again, they choose the first option, but this doesn’t sit well with Tom, who takes it into his own hands to make things right even if it destroys his life.
In these moments, it becomes clearer why someone like Cianfrance would be interested in this narrative. In his most recent movie, The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance inspects the notion of sin and living with the choices that one has made over the course of a lifetime.
In the sprawling epic, he focuses on Avery (Bradley Cooper), a police officer whose whole career is based off a moment when he shot and killed a criminal (played by Ryan Gosling) even though he didn’t necessarily go through the proper protocol in bringing him in. This leads Avery on the labyrinth of lies that follows with a career in politics and the title of hero throughout the town.
Cianfrance examines how one decision — whether good or bad — can affect not only the outcome of a life, but also poison any event coming afterwards. The same can be said about The Light Between Oceans, which focuses on the pitfalls of the couple choosing to keep the baby even though Tom is aware of the mother back on the island. The crime they committed isn’t awful, and with the events that led up to it, you understand why Isabel would leap at the opportunity to have a child. But the choice is still wrong, and because of that choice, the relationship between the two would never be the same.
Cianfrance examines morality through the lens of sins and choices, and this allows for a much more human and introspective examination of these subjects. But, I don’t know if it was all that perfect for this movie. While this concept begs interesting results, it doesn’t seem to be pulled off well in this case.
For most of the rest of the film, the narrative between the couple and the baby’s rightful mother doesn’t have the intensity that the first act’s romance did. In many ways, the film should’ve played as a straight period romance as the results were swooning.
The Light Between Oceans is never poor because of its narrative choices, but it loses its punch about halfway through and never finds it again. Images and concepts can only do so much, and it seemed like Cianfrance should’ve focused on the emotions being evoked in the film’s beginning and followed that lead for much longer.