The Light Between Oceans

An epic novel, Western Australia, a lighthouse, and Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”) seemed like the perfect recipe (at least for me) for one of the best films of the year. When the emotionally riveting trailer for “The Light Between Oceans” debuted in spring, it seemed director Derek Cianfrance might have another Oscar contender on his hands. Unfortunately, the “Blue Valentine” director’s film doesn’t quite live up to what the trailer advertised. It’s a powerful story of love, loss, and forgiveness set in an iconic location that will endure long after you have forgotten the plot. This is Cianfrance’s first mainstream film, and I am not sure working in the confines of Disney’s shadow is the most appropriate for his style of filmmaking.

Following the Great War, soldier Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) takes a job for the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service on Janus Rock. The small island off the Western Australian coast only ever has one inhabitant, and that’s Tom, the lighthouse keeper. When he does get leave to visit the nearest town, he falls for a local girl Isabel (Vikander) who after some months he marries. They begin a quant life together in the small cottage by the sea, forever in the shadow of the lighthouse. Their attempt to start a family fails in tragedy and despair until days after the latest miscarriage, a newborn washes up on their shore. Isabel and Tom keep the child as their own, for years raising the little girl, until a trip to the mainland reveals the little girl’s mother and her devastating circumstance.

It’s a powerful story of love, loss, and forgiveness set in an iconic location that will endure long after you have forgotten the plot.

“The Light Between Oceans” proves that a film can literally have all the best ingredients but if not organized and cultivated correctly, the heart of the film doesn’t beat. Real life couple Fassbender (“Steve Jobs”) and Vikander both deliver their expectedly strong performances, even having Oscar winner Weisz as the other mother raises the level of talent even higher. The story seems to shy away from emotional moments when it should be leaning into them. We are introduced to the birth mother and given her backstory right in the middle of our main character’s life changing moment. The films first half feels so steady as we learn about this broken man who chooses solitude in this lighthouse. I could watch an entire film just about Fassbender living and working on that island.

The story presents various powerful themes; “You only have to forgive once, but to resent, you have to keep doing it”. The script even offers twists that shy away from more obvious plot lines. Still the heartbreak never feels heartbreaking enough due to characters almost always choosing the most complicated path for plot sake, never reason. As the plot thickens, the films presentation changes, we begin to lose the creativity from the first half and how the ocean, the island and the location play such an important role. Cianfrance and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (“Macbeth”) really do an excellent job in the first half embedding the viewer in such an idealistic time, place and era. For all its artistry, “The Light Between Oceans” is missing something valuable, prohibiting it from achieving its full emotional potential.

Final Thought

Heartbreakingly not one of the best films of the year.


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