Derek Cianfrance’s post-WWI melodrama, The Light Between Oceans, is a doctorate-level class on film acting from two of the best on-screen performers working today: Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander. Cianfrance adapted the screenplay himself from the acclaimed novel by M.L. Stedman, which ponders those cruel twists of fate that often rain down upon us and how we can respond to them. Do we shut down and isolate ourselves from humanity, or will we allow another to remind us of the wonders of love and life? And to what lengths will we go to provide happiness to those we care about? All of these questions, and far more subtle ones, are explored in The Light Between Oceans, but ultimately this film impresses mostly due to the absurd proficiency of its lead actors.
Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) is a veteran of the Great War, and he scores a trial stint as a lightkeeper in Australia. He performs quite well, and gets the job full time. Meanwhile, he has attracted the eye of the daughter of a local teacher, Isabel Graysmark (Vikander). Though there are some difficulties in their initial courtship, they eventually marry and Isabel comes to live with Tom at the lighthouse. Unfortunately, Isabel and Tom are hideously unlucky with regards to expanding their family; Isabel has two miscarriages in three years. Then a rowboat washes up on shore with a dead man and a young baby girl.
From here, Isabel fears that the child will be placed into an orphanage, and Tom is torn between doing his duty and reporting the incident, or allaying his wife’s sadness. Tom chooses to lie, and he and Isabel begin raising the child as their own. These choices and their ramifications are touched upon with magnificent subtlety in the film, often only with sparse visuals. In addition to leaving a great deal up to the interpretation of the audience, this technique also prevents the proceedings from blatantly tugging at the heartstrings.
From an acting standpoint, Fassbender at least equals his strongest previous performances . His portrayal of Tom is packed with loneliness, and he is able to imply thoughts and choices with subtlety and grace from the first moment he is on screen. There are moments during his introduction to Isabel, for example, that will never show up on an acting reel at the Oscars, but absolutely blow away 90% of the scenes that do. Furthermore, Fassbender is wonderful at convincing the audience of the inner turmoil associated with his breach of integrity. He knows that by acquiescing to Isabel and raising the child as his own that he is doing wrong, and his face is often pregnant with this pain
Vikander is every bit his equal. She imbues Isabel with a verve for life and a refreshing optimism, which makes her miscarriages even more devastating. This much is clear: the entire narrative of this film requires Vikander to convince the audience that Isabel could actually make the choices that she does. It is no easy task, and I would predict that the critics who panned the film were not convinced by Vikander. I certainly was. She is magnificent throughout, and has the same command of affectation and subtlety that Fassbender does – and is probably even better. Their on-screen chemistry is also other-wordly, and if they keep acting opposite each other in the future, we will be the envy of future ages.
Smaller performances essentially only need to not ruin these titanic offerings from Fassbender and Vikander, and they accomplish that goal. Rachel Weisz is great at always, and I absolutely love her in this film. Most of the other actors are less-well known, but they all hold their own – some in crucial spots.
Derek Cianfrance is known mostly for other emotionally-charged dramas like Blue Valentine and The Place Between the Pines, so this film is definitely right in his wheelhouse. He adapts the screenplay very well, and directs with a deft and reserved hand. Small choices inform the audience without beating them over-the-head, and there are numerous set-up / payoff moments that end up being quite surprising, up to and including the climax and resolution of the film. He establishes the perfect pacing for the story as well. It is purposely slow, and helps the audience to adapt to the lives of the characters on screen and empathize more with the doldrums and isolation of lightkeepership. Big jumps in time serve to mostly give us the sensation that we are only looking at the most important aspects of the story, which is always a hallmark of good Romanticism.
Thematically, the film has a great deal of material to explore. It is at once about loss and tragedy, cruel twists of fate, and the interplay of integrity and justice. It is easy to put one’s self in the position of these characters and wonder what you would do in such an instance. You wonder at your choice while watching these characters debate with their own. And ultimately, the unbridled integrity of Tom and Isabel shines through clearly and champions a morality of honesty and justice. Furthermore, the film is constructed in a such a way as to emphasize that these characters all have actual choices to make. This isn’t just a story happening to stationary cut-outs, but fully-dimensional agents of their own volition. This is a wonderful expression of Romantic Realism, and a great plot-theme, to boot.
The Light Between Oceans did not receive the best critical response, as evidence by Cianfrance’s wife writing a scathing blog post about critics that broke the embargo and likely cost the movie a higher opening weekend. From my perspective, this is an unearned evaluation of the film, but an understandable one. Despite a melodramatic plot, The Light Between Oceans is an expert-level film. The acting, writing, directing, and cinematography are all pitch-perfect and awe-inspiring. Some may nitpick particular moments or choices, but the overall craft of the film commands a positive appraisal.