The early scenes of The Light Between Oceans spend a good deal of time bracing us for the later scenes in the film. As our two leads spend time exchanging looks of deep longing, wandering across a breathtaking landscape and issuing heartfelt declarations of love, the film highlights, underlines and circles Problems to Be Dealt With Later. You see the tidal wave of heartbreak and misery coming a mile away, but the film still manages to achieve the near-overwhelming emotional impact it's clearly aiming for. There wasn't a single big moment that really surprised me, and yet the film still made me feel as if I had a fifty-pound weight on my chest. That takes real artistry.
Our tale begins in Western Australia circa 1921, as WWI veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender, X-Men: Apocalypse) accepts a new job as a lighthouse keeper. It's lonely work, but Tom is ready for a little peace and quiet: the horrors of war have taken a toll on him, and this new position is precisely the sort of thing he needs. Still, it isn't long before he's swept into a passionate romance with Isabel (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina), who lives in the nearby village. They marry, and their early days together are a warm blur of lovemaking and lighthouse-keeping.
Alas, Alexandre Desplat's masterfully melancholy score has struck too many forbidding notes to let us believe that the unadulterated bliss will last forever. Isabel has a miscarriage. Tom gently suggests that they should try again. They do, but Isabel has another miscarriage (this time at a fairly late stage of her pregnancy). As Isabel and Tom attempt to cope with their emotional devastation (marked by two nameless wooden crosses bearing the words “always remembered”), something unusual happens. A rowboat drifts to the shore of Tom and Isabel's little island, carrying a dead man and a living (but hungry) newborn baby. There's no indication of who these people are or where they came from, aside from a fancy little rattle that suggests that baby's family was wealthy. Tom prepares to report the incident and hand the baby over to the authorities, but Isabel makes a desperate suggestion: maybe they could just keep the child? After all, no one in the village knows that she has miscarried. They could just pass the child off as their own, and no one will ever suspect anything. Seeing the pain in Isabel's eyes, Tom reluctantly agrees.
I won't reveal any more about where the film goes, aside from telling you that much of the film's second half involves a new character played by Rachel Weisz (as in The Lobster, her appearance marks a significant change in the film's tone and direction). What I will tell you is that director Derek Cianfrance – who previously gave us the exceptional Blue Valentine and the ambitious-but-messy The Place Beyond the Pines – does a remarkable job of pulling us into the film's emotional vortex. This is such a pretty, elegant, tasteful picture, and that surface-level gloss makes it easy for the film's emotional intensity to sneak up on you (in that sense, the film is reminiscent of some of the better Merchant-Ivory productions).
Fassbender and Vikander – who fell into a real-life romance over the course of production – deliver nuanced, committed performances, making us feel for Tom and Isabel no matter how misguided their actions may be. Tom is the sort of character Fassbender plays so well: a quiet, well-mannered, haunted man who keeps the secrets of his past locked away (in this case, he guards those secrets so carefully that we don't ever get a peek at some of them). Tom seems to feel that he owes the world some sort of penance, and is perhaps too easily drawn to notions of martyrdom: his worst decisions are directly connected to the fact that he loves his wife and loathes himself.
Vikander is even better as Isabel, expertly detailing a young woman's journey from joyful contentment to crippling misery to... well, you'll see. Vikander's work during the two miscarriage sequences is so effective that it's almost hard to watch: fear, physical pain and emotional anguish flood the movie during these scenes, and the impact they generate is essential to the rest of the film's effectiveness. As the film proceeds, it becomes clear that Isabel's conflicted heart is the tale's real emotional center.
Cianfrance has described The Light Between Oceans as “a Cassavettes movie in a David Lean landscape,” which is a fairly accurate description of what he's achieved here. There are moments in which the film resembles Lean's Ryan's Daughter, in which Lean applied his then-grandiose filmmaking style to a similarly small-scale human story. Cianfrance does a better job of preventing the story he's telling from getting drowned out by all of the widescreen grandeur, alternating between swoon-inducing wide shots of his remarkable setting and almost uncomfortably intimate close-ups of human faces (not a single teardrop is missed by Adam Arkapaw's camera). The film is a handsome technical achievement, but its true power is rooted in the deep empathy Cianfrance has for his characters. We care about these people, which gives the predictability of the film's plot an unexpected power: we wish we could reach out to Tom and Isabel and warn them of what's just around the corner. Then again, perhaps it wouldn't do any good. These people are simply doing what their hearts tell them they must do, and we can only hope that life doesn't crush them for doing it.
The Light Between Oceans
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Year: 2016