Release: Friday, September 2, 2016
Written by: Derek Cianfrance
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Derek Cianfrance has emerged once again with another sweeping, emotional epic, this time The Light Between Oceans, an adaptation of the 2012 international bestseller by M.L. Stedman. Maybe you saw The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance’s previous effort. From an ambitious meditation on how one man’s actions can have a rippling effect across generations of family, he turns now to a deeply personal exploration of a young husband and wife trying to start a family.
‘Deeply personal.’ Some people might call it something else, like . . . melodramatic. Which it is; The Light Between Oceans is so melodramatic. It’s also often too depressing for its own good; a joke or two wouldn’t have hurt, but you know what else it is? Incredibly well-acted. So much so, in fact, that leads Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander found art imitating life, er, rather, inspiring it. Since working on the project the two have entered into a romantic affair that they have (largely) kept private. Given everything the actors go through bringing this tale to life, it’s not that surprising to find fictional romance has begotten real-life romance. (If only the same could have applied to John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer.)
That last paragraph was risky for me. I vowed once upon a time that I would never allow my musings on film to become a gossip column. But I just find it so interesting in this case because actors this good — and these specific actors — often make it impossible to discern professionalism from deeper personal bonding. The Light Between Oceans absolutely demands chemistry, in the same way The Notebook demanded chemistry. In the same way A Walk to Remember demanded it. Fortunately, Oceans is a great deal better than one of those two, and I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the one with Ryan Gosling — incidentally an actor who has already appeared twice in Cianfrance’s brief but memorable back catalogue.
Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) has returned from the Great War to a remote fishing village in Western Australia. He’s taking over the post at the Janus Rock lighthouse after the former keeper quit by, quote, throwing himself over the side of a cliff. (Hint-hint: this job is difficult insofar as it is lonely.) Tom believes isolation will be good for him after his horrendous experiences in the war. After three months he takes a ferry back into town, where he happens across a beautiful girl named Isabel Graysmark (Vikander), who takes a keen interest in him. Her father Bill (Aussie Garry McDonald) is actually the one who took Tom on as a keeper.
There’s an undeniable spark between Tom and Isabel — not the kind that’s scripted, but that which evolves from actors being genuinely comfortable in one another’s presence. The only thing more natural than Vikander’s smile is the pair’s affection for one another. Soon enough they’re crossing off one major item on the checklist for A Perfect Life Together and find themselves happily married, ready to start a new life together on the lonely island. Love faces its toughest test after the couple’s first miscarriage. After a second, life becomes downright unbearable. Then, quite serendipitously, a rowboat washes ashore carrying what appears to be a dead man along with a still-living infant.
The Light Between Oceans is meditative, a two-plus-hour runtime stretching out like the yawning cerulean gap between Australia and the nearest land mass. It is a very. Long. Sit. Perhaps that’s due to the frequent bouts of depression we must battle along with our characters that makes it feel that way. It’s slow going but Cianfrance, along with his DP Adam Arkapaw, makes the physical world such a wonder to behold. The whole thing feels like a postcard from Australia. Too bad the weight of the complex morality play ongoing eventually causes it to collapse in on itself come the dying light of the film.
It’s not Rachel Weisz‘s fault, who plays the part of Hannah Roennfeldt, a grieving mother who recently lost her husband and baby out at sea (cough-cough). We’ve been expecting (or is that, dreading?) to meet her. Her tremendous performance certainly leaves a mark, even if the character itself is more of a tool rather than a real person. Hannah represents a physical consequence of Tom and Isabel’s actions and yet the way Cianfrance chooses to insert her (and depending on how faithful an adaptation this is, this flaw could be true of the book as well) feels blatantly manipulative. Her backstory is handled in a simple flashback or two, as opposed to the hour we get to spend with the other two. The manner in which she is brought into close proximity to the couple turns out to be the most offensive contrivance of all.
Contrivances be damned, though, when an experience lingers in the mind like this one does. It may not be easy viewing and it can be emotionally manipulative — the knife-twisting in the final act really proved a bridge too far for me — but Oceans is a film with tons of heart. It is further confirmation of why I love these actors. It’s a movie that made me feel, that made me bleed. Okay, not really. But still.
Recommendation: The Light Between Oceans is an old-fashioned romance epic whose frequent trips into melodrama remind me why I can’t do romance that often. But when one features stars as reliable as these two, I find it very hard to say no. There’s a lot to like about it, including the breathtaking postcards-from-Australia scenery. It’s all a grand gesture, and for those who don’t mind sitting through a long, meditative drama this should definitely appeal.
Running Time: 133 mins.
Quoted: “One day this will all feel like a dream.”
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