7.5 out of 10
Michael Fassbender as Tom Sherbourne
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
The Light Between Oceans Review:
All melodramatic novel adaptations should be made by Derek Cianfrance. Or at least, people who attempt them should approach them the way Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines) has approached his first adaptation, keeping the extreme plot choices typical of the genre while doing away with sentimentalism or easy emotionalism.
Instead, he luxuriates in underplaying the thought processes that lead to melodramatic choices and realistically exploring the fallout of secrets being explored. With a bent towards humanism, The Light Between Oceans avoids the pitfalls of its genre. The result is a human drama which, though occasionally clunky, generally outpaces its brethren to create true feeling in its characters and its audience.
The temptation to make easy choices must have been immense given the potentially-salacious nature of its subject matter.
Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) is a World War I vet returned to Australia from the trenches of France. Searching for isolation after the horror of war, he takes a job manning a lighthouse looking out on the Pacific and Indian Oceans (the ‘oceans’ of the title). Instead, he finds love in the form of the local reverend’s daughter (Vikander) and the two set about raising a family, or trying to. A series of miscarriages leaves them hurt and broken and in the perfect headspace to consider it ‘a sign from god’ when a rowboat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a crying infant.
At first blush repressed period melodrama seems like a strange choice for Cianfrance, who has made his career on bold, emotionally-devastating character dramas like Blue Valentine and Pines. By comparison, Oceans seems intentionally opposite from all the work he has done before. It measures its words and thoughts by the syllable (at least until people start ending up in jail), filling the space with long, slow shots of landscapes and people looking off at those landscapes in quiet contemplation.
Joining with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom), he has developed his most beautiful film, resplendent in blue and yellow light; a light which constantly shines on the quiet Sherbournes but never seems to see their internal dissonance. Looking beneath the surface there is a roiling sea of deep emotion and repressed secrets desperate for release, Cianfrance’s favorite subject and the connecting tissue of his different works.
In that he has found perhaps his finest collaborator in Fassbender. For the number of roles he’s had which required teeth baring intensity, it’s easy to forget how good Fassbender is at this type of character. A man scarred by the reality of modern war, his quiet remove hides a constant search for meaning and how one person’s decisions affect everyone around him.
With a performance calling back to his work in A Dangerous Method, Tom is the one who ends up containing all of the emotional conflict of Oceans and in every scene Fassbender reminds why he is one of today’s best working actors. After years of raising the found infant in isolation, a rare visit to the mainland brings Tom and Isabel face to face with a woman (Weisz) mourning the loss of her husband and baby daughter some years earlier.
It’s when the plot catches up with the character drama, that what seams Oceans begins to show, particularly regarding Vikander. While the focus of the film is Tom (who begins and ends the story), it is Vikander’s Isabel who commands the plot and usually in the most clichéd way possible. When infant Lucy washes up on their island, it’s Isabel who pushes to keep her.
When Tom’s conscious begins to catch up to what they’ve done, it’s Isabel who complicates things by turning her back on everything but her desire for the little girl denied her by nature. It gives Vikander little to do beyond being tiresomely melodramatic with some of the few over-the-top explosions the film allows itself.
Compared with the quiet devastation of Weisz’s Hannah (who slowly but surely takes over the last act), it makes her weaknesses as a character all too evident. It potentially points out the weaknesses of Cianfrance, who soars when dealing with the subtext of the hidden, but crashes to Earth when he must turn that into text.
If it’s not perfect from beginning to end, it still far better than many of its ilk and an example of how good melodrama can be in the right hands.