The Light Between the Oceans is beautiful, but a bit hazily conceived


The Great War has ended. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a veteran with haunted eyes and no family, takes a temporary gig minding a lighthouse on an otherwise uninhabited island some distance from Australia’s western coast. En route to the island he meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander). Eventually the temporary gig becomes permanent. Eventually Tom reunites with Isabel. She asks him on a date and on that date she asks him to marry her. Eventually they marry and Isabel moves to the island. Eventually they try to start a family but encounter some devastating setbacks. Eventually a small vessel drifts ashore with a dead man and a living baby in it—a baby Tom and Isabel are very tempted to appropriate and present to the world as their own. All of which is to say that eventually The Light Between Oceans completes its protracted set-up, gets through at least a half-dozen postcard-worthy images of the sun looming over the sea, and actually begins to tell us a story. It is an interesting story, but I don’t know that story alone can sustain this film over its 132-minute running time.

The Light Between Oceans was adapted from M. L. Stedman’s novel by writer-director Derek Cianfrance, whose previous films include Blue Valentine and The Place Between the Pines. Cianfrance has a penchant for damaged men, and Fassbender, a disciplined and emotionally articulate actor, seems eager to fall in line. The reticence Tom displays in the opening job interview scene immediately conveys the sense that this guy is very traumatized. Unfortunately, following the scenes of accelerated romance between Tom and Isabel, Tom swiftly and puzzlingly loses dimension. Love makes Tom happy, and all that trauma from war and from his upbringing magically disappears—leaving a space open for Isabel, who eclipses Tom as the more active, though not necessarily more interesting, protagonist. Grief-stricken after failing to bring two children to term, it is she who insists on the ruse involving the lost baby. As you might imagine, complications eventually ensue. That lost baby has a mother somewhere, guilt catches up with Tom and Isabel, and the film’s karmic calculus eventually plays itself out as its characters become more and more cypher-like. This is a very pretty movie with a very compelling premise and very talented actors, but pacing, hazily conceived characters and a rather simplistic approach to psychology make it very hard to love.

Opens Fri, Sept 2

Directed by Derek Cianfrance

2 stars

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