'The Light Between Oceans'
‘The Light Between Oceans’ is pure unadulterated soap opera, and weirdly that’s both its greatest strength and fatal flaw. When it works, the larger than life story pulls enormous emotions out of audiences barely able to contain their gooey feelings. When it fails, that exact same overblown drama doesn’t quite have the same effect on the brains connected to those swelling hearts.
The film is still very sweet and well-meaning, defined by two strong central performances. However, this sort of thing tends to look extra silly when it’s blown across a big screen and viewers are forced to confront the realities of a story that doesn’t have much reality to share.
Michael Fassbender stars as Tom Sherbourne, a hunky veteran who returned from World War combat not-quite-right. He takes a job as a lighthouse keeper because that means he can live by himself to brood with his emotions and never have to tell a soul. During a few visits to town, he catches the eye of Isabel (Alicia Vikander). She’s young and lovely, so naturally they fall in love and she moves into the lonely house on Lighthouse Island with him. Since it’s the early 20th Century, they immediately start trying to pop out a baby. Tragically, Isabel has not one but two miscarriages. Shortly after the second, a mysterious rowboat arrives on their shore during a storm carrying a corpse and a beautiful baby girl. Terrified that she may never have a child of her own, Isabel convinces Tom to keep the baby and pretend that it’s their own. He reluctantly agrees, and soon they’re a happy family visiting town with the girl in tow. Unfortunately, that baby actually belongs to a local widow (Rachel Weisz) who has been devastated since her husband and infant daughter disappeared many moons ago.
The movie is pure melodrama, but at least writer/director Derek Cianfrance (‘Blue Valentine’) doesn’t dare to pretend otherwise. Every shot in the film looks like it could be a postcard. There’s rarely a moment when Fassbender and Vikander hold each other to declare their love that’s unaccompanied by some sort of gorgeous sunset or landscape to ensure that everyone knows their love is extra powerful.
It’s almost refreshing how unapologetically Cianfrance shoots for the rafters and delivers his big, sprawling weepie in the biggest of ways. It also doesn’t hurt that the central moral quandary is actually quite strong. Even though the couple do a horrible thing, they’re the only characters the audience has met leading up to that decision, and they’re so gosh darn lovable that it’s genuinely tough to watch them deal with the joy and sorrow of their selfish act.
Cianfrance has hired a pretty remarkable central trio of actors to pull this off. Fassbender is of course a rare movie star with character actor versatility. Even though he’s essentially shuffling around as a silent moper, he has the ability to communicate inner turmoil at all times. (We never learn exactly what went wrong in the war and we never have to; it was clearly damaging enough to alter his life in rather uncomfortable ways.) Vikander is just as strong as his wife, so pained and anguished by her miscarriages that her kidnapping/conspiracy plot feels more desperate than diabolical. They form a genuinely happy family together, but it’s built on destroying someone else.
Rachel Weisz plays that “someone else,” and while she’s quite good in the role, she simply doesn’t have as much to do as everyone else. She still casts a saddening and moving presence, but even fleeting flashbacks of backstory can’t flesh her out as well as her troubled co-stars. It’s a pleasure to watch the three wonderful actors attempt to infuse psychological realism into this sappy pulp. For a while, it even seems like the movie might find a balance between psychodrama and melodrama… but alas…
Unfortunately, movies like ‘The Light Between Oceans’ are all about Big Moral Questions, and eventually that’s exactly what this movie delivers. Messages hit home hard. There are comeuppances. There are big declarations. There’s running in the rain to exchange important secrets. It’s all a bit much. Not even these actors can make that stuff feel grounded, and the overly romantic cinematography becomes overwhelming as well. The movie works far better than it should for quite a while, but it gets a little Sparksy (Nicholas, that is).
There have been far worse syrupy romances and tedious melodramas this year and there are sure to be even worse ones to come. At least ‘The Light Between Oceans’ has some strong performances and even delivers the promised waterworks for the bulk of its saggy running time. That’s more than most movies of this sort can deliver.