Tuesday 6 September 2016

Movie Review: The Light Between Oceans (2016)

A weighty and visually beautiful drama, The Light Between Oceans features a commanding story of human anguish but the film is drawn out beyond the capacity of the story.

Rural Western Australia, just after the end of the Great War. Tom (Michael Fassbender) has experienced hell in the trenches and is looking for a quiet place to emotionally recuperate. He accepts a job as a remote lighthouse keeper on a rocky outcrop accessible only by boat. While briefly visiting the nearby town, Tom meets and falls in love with the lively Isabel (Alicia Vikander). She joins him on the island and they try to start a family, but tragedy strikes in the form of two successive miscarriages.

With Isabel still grieving, a drifting lifeboat washes up on the island. Inside is a living newborn baby and a dead adult man. Isabel immediately takes to the child and insists that they keep it as their own. Tom is torn between making his wife happy and doing the right thing in reporting the incident and helping to find the baby's real parents. He yields to Isabel's desires, and they name the baby Lucy. Months later and back in town to baptize Lucy, Tom spots grieving widow Hannah (Rachel Weisz), and realizes that she is Lucy's birth mother.

An adaptation of the M. L. Stedman book directed by Derek Cianfrance, The Light Between Oceans is a melancholy story enlivened by excellent lead performances and stunning landscapes. The plodding place and excessive length erode enjoyment, but the story carries enough strength to maintain interest.

A prevailing theme in the film is post-war emotional doldrums. Tom is suffering from what today would be called post traumatic stress disorder, seeking immense solitude to chase away war demons. Through no fault of her own Isabel is dragged into the emotional abyss caused by successive miscarriages. And later Hannah contributes to the gloom by carrying the burden of a family shattered under bigoted circumstances.

With the three main characters suffering under the pressure of severe emotional anguish, The Light Between Oceans is not a happy place. The film almost revels in endless misery, the brief moments of happiness, such as the early days of Tom and Isabel's marriage, only serving as preludes to deeper valleys of despair ahead.

Adam Arkapaw's cinematography cuts through some of the psychological darkness to capture some uplifting if harsh scenery. The small island housing the lighthouse, the cute town representing the closest civilization and the body of water in between all provide opportunities for marvellous feasts for the eyes. And with Cianfrance insisting on the slowest possible speed for the story to unfold, all the pretty pictures help pass the time.

The performances from Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander are both earnest. Fassbender remains committed to a quiet representation of a man seeking emotional rescue initially on his own before accepting a life companion. Vikander gets more variety to play with, first as Isabel chips Tom out of his shell, then traveling through some sharp cycles of giddy happiness inevitably followed by disappointment. Rachel Weisz appears relatively late in the proceedings and is generally underused.

The Light Between Oceans evolves into a war survivor's search for purpose, and a deep commitment to love that drives a willingness to sacrifice. Although not nearly as profound as perhaps intended, the film is nevertheless a reasonably rewarding story of the tenacity that resides within genuine human attachments.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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