Saturday, October 15, 2016

Movie Review - The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans (2016)
Starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, and Florence Clery
Directed by Derek Cianfrance

If someone were to come out of The Light Between Oceans and say they were bored senseless, I wouldn't be able to necessarily argue with them.  Writer-director Derek Cianfrance's film is indeed deliberately slow-paced, but to this reviewer it adds much nuance to the film's plot which details the lives of recently married lighthouse keeper Tom and his wife Isabel who live a secluded life on an island, unable to contact anyone on the mainland without the help of a several hour boat ride.  The detachment Tom and Isabel experience is palpably felt thanks to Cianfrance's methodical direction which in addition to looking cinematographically beautiful also gets some emotionally riveting performances from its cast.

Taking place in the early 1920s, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is a WWII vet who recently moved to the western Australia coast.  Upon arrival, he is offered a job as a lighthouse keeper on the secluded island of Janus Rock which Tom accepts without hesitation, seeking an opportunity to live alone and reflect upon the horrors of the war.  Tom's seclusion, however, is short-lived as he soon falls for a young woman named Isabel (Alicia Vikander) on one of his visits to the mainland for supplies.  Isabel agrees to marry him and the newly betrothed couple begin their life together on Janus Rock, soon discovering that Isabel is pregnant with their first child.  Ecstatic, the couple prepare for their upcoming arrival, but unfortunately Isabel miscarries which spirals her into a great depression from which she only recovers when the couple discovers that they are pregnant again.  However, this pregnancy is met with the same hurtful result as Isabel loses this child as well.  The confinement of the island coupled with the loss of the two children devastate Isabel, but one afternoon, Isabel and Tom discover a boat floating near the coast of Janus Rock and, upon pulling the craft to shore, they find a weeks-old baby girl inside along with a deceased man.  Because of their seclusion, no one was yet aware of Isabel's latest miscarriage and, after Isabel's insistent pressing of Tom, the couple decide to act as if the baby is theirs.  To say this won't end well shouldn't come as a surprise as upon a visit to shore several years later, Tom discovers a disparate Hannah (Rachel Weisz), devastated that her husband and child seem to have been lost at sea.

The Light Between Oceans is certainly a film in which the human emotional psyche is placed front and center which can lead to an overly melodramatic piece if the director and actors aren't careful.  I'm pleased to report that isn't the case here in the slightest thanks in large part to the performances of the three aforementioned cast members.  Rachel Weisz nicely captures the mournful essence of a recently widowed woman dealing with not only the loss of her husband, but her child as well.  Michael Fassbender's imbues Tom with an icy exterior that melts away when he meets Isabel, only to return when he realizes the gravity of the crime they've committed despite the fact that it has brought the couple much-needed happiness.

The film, however, belongs to Alicia Vikander.  As the film opens, Isabel's youthful sassiness is an attractive asset to the stern Tom and her zest for life doesn't exactly echo the more subdued surroundings of her quiet coastal Australian town.  Capturing the joy of impending motherhood, Vikander also completely embodies the devastation of a woman who loses two children via miscarriage and her brooding pain is palpably felt.  The epicness and freedom their secluded island once gave Isabel now feels lonely, restricting, and painful.  Vikander perfectly captures these varied emotions which take her character on a bit of a roller coaster ride, but never feel out of place.  Together, Vikander and Fassbender (a couple in real life) create a beautiful romance that is dealt many an ill-fated blow.

To me, the film works best in the first two-thirds where the brooding nature and the deliberate slow pace add to Tom and Isabel's plight.  (I will readily admit that this sentiment will not be shared by all.)  The final third is where things begin to derail a little bit and, oddly enough, it's the point when there's the most plot.  Machinations in the story lead the characters of Isabel and Tom to begin to question one another and there's one too many changes in heart as the story progresses.  However, Derek Cianfrance had built up such goodwill in the prior acts that I was willing to overlook it somewhat.  Thanks to some nuanced direction and terrific performances (including the not-yet-mentioned wonderful work from young Florence Clery as Tom and Isabel's child whose acting feels incredibly innocent and natural), The Light Between Oceans is a great start to the awards season.  Unfortunately, I doubt it will be remembered in any capacity come Oscar time.

The RyMickey Rating:  B+


  1. I need to watch this. You should start adding directors to you labels (or have you already done that?). You reviewed Place Beyond the Pines and Blue Valentine on here, right?

  2. Adding directors for past stuff may be too much work! I do have some for the more prolific directors, but not for these newer folks.

    I actually really liked this one (obviously). It was rather beautiful -- flawed, but wonderfully acted and gorgeously shot. Not quite the emotional wreck that was Blue Valentine, but better than Place Beyond the Pines.