The Light Between Oceans marks the first of a slew of pre-Oscar fall films. There were high expectations for the movie, especially with the media surrounding Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander’s real-life romance. Unfortunately, director Derek Cianfrance’s vision loses focus and ultimately disappoints by shying away from the darkness integral to the story’s themes of loss and forgiveness.
The film begins with a man, haunted and lost, returning home to Australia after World War I. Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) takes work as a lighthouse keeper on the island of Janus, where he believes, “Out here, there’s no one to hurt.” Despite his intent to minimize his impact on and interaction with others, he soon falls for Isabel Graysmarks (Vikander), a young woman not immune to loss herself. After months of exchanging letters, they marry and she joins him on Janus, and at first it seems like nothing will be able to detract from happiness in their little isolated world away from the world.
But the island is an unforgiving and harsh place, a character in and of itself, and the couple’s dreams of a family seem initially doomed. Yet it is also on the island that after two miscarriages, hope arrives in the form of a small boat washed ashore carrying a dead man and a crying baby. Isabel is resolute to keep the child, but Tom is faced with the difficult decision: do what he believes is right (report the boat’s arrival in his log and contact the authorities) or allow Isabel to keep the baby she’s been longing for.
Rachel Weisz plays Hannah, who surfaces midway through the film as the birth mother of the lost child and also arguably the most sympathetic and least frustrating character. Given its heavy plot, The Light Between Oceans could more powerfully present characters who are at their end, lost and looking for any sign of hope to rescue them. But the film does not jump headfirst into that urgency and that darkness; although the actors give strong performances, they are unable to bring a much-needed chemistry or overcome choices in direction.
Vikander brings vibrancy and a fierceness of spirit to her portrayal of Isabel. However, it is Fassbender’s haunted performance as Tom that is truly compelling and elevates the film. Cianfrance makes the decision not to utilize flashbacks to war when it comes to Tom; instead, through the actor’s manner and expressions we are able to imagine the horrors that he encountered. In one particular scene Isabel asks Tom to make the impossible decision between making the morally correct choice and his love for his wife; Fassbender is able to portray the difficulty of this through a pleading and torn look in his eyes. Isabel says, “She needs us. We’re not doing anything wrong,” and the decision that changes their lives forever is made. Though first a refuge for the couple, the island of Janus serves to become a catalyst for their misfortunes and despair.
For the promotion of the film the real-life love story of Fassbender and Vikander took precedence, even as the actors insisted that they did not want to talk about their relationship. These are two skilled actors who have led critically acclaimed independent and foreign language films, but it still remains to be seen if they can lead popular box office hits. Can they attract audiences based on star power alone? Alicia Vikander has delivered a stream of strong performances in films including Ex Machina (2015), Testament of Youth (2014), A Royal Affair (2012), and The Danish Girl (2015), for which she won the Oscar for best supporting actor and arguably stole the film from lead Eddie Redmayne. However, it was her performance in Ex Machina that showed her potential. Her movement and mannerisms as a robot desperate for self-preservation made the performance one of the most memorable of the year. Fassbender has also consistently delivered powerhouse performances, from the lecherous father figure in the indie Fish Tank (2009) to the brutal plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave (2013) to a sex addict who will stop at nothing to destroy himself in Steve McQueen’s Shame. There is no lightness to Fassbender’s performances; rather, they are laden with such complexity that would make a turn at comedy perhaps his most surprising venture yet.
The film’s lackluster performance at the box office and my feeling of dissatisfaction when leaving the theater made me wonder what The Light Between Oceans missed. The pacing of the film is off, so that instead of caring about what happens to Tom and Isabel, I felt the film dragged on. Cianfrance (perhaps most well-known for 2010’s Blue Valentine) lacks a clear vision for what the film should be. The cinematography of the island landscape is beautiful, but the director’s abundant reliance on emotional close-ups feels manipulative and forced. In the first meeting between Isabel and Hannah, we watch as Hannah’s face crumples when she meets Lucy, who in reality is her own child. The camera lingers too long on her face, which seems more like an affectation of the director’s than a necessity for the story. When Tom first meets Isabel at her family’s house for dinner, the shot lingers on Isabel’s face as she keeps glancing at Tom. I wanted so badly to invest in the characters, to cry and feel their pain, but I felt detached.
The Light Between Oceans is neither a sweeping romance nor a purely bleak drama; instead it panders to both genres and ends up floundering in the middle. If one is to go the way of clichéd romance, The Notebook is a good example of a film that is somewhat infectious if due to the chemistry of its actors alone. There is a lot of sentimentality, but it is memorable because unlike The Light Between Oceans, The Notebook wholeheartedly gives itself to the romance genre. Arguably, The Light Between Oceans has on its side a bestselling novel brimming with deeper themes: forgiveness and redemption, underpinnings of the emotional ravages war brings far past the battlefield, and the observation that no one can expect to go through life without affecting, and potentially harming, another person. But Cianfrance loses the threads of these themes, as the film’s two-plus hours succumb to melodrama in spite of its actors’ ardent attempts to render their characters.
Blue Valentine (2010) likewise sparked a real-life romance between its leads, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, and is comparably hard to watch as it illustrates the deterioration of a relationship and features less-than-likable characters. But Gosling and Williams are able to portray the whisperings of a couple newly in love and the shouts and silences of a relationship at its bitter end. The dynamic between Fassbender and Vikander in The Light Between Oceans lacks a necessary passion to drive the film. In this onscreen love story, there is no relatable spark or magic. The wedding scene between Tom and Isabel comes the closest to displaying some sort of warmth, but it is short-lived.
Before I saw this film, I wondered whether it would mean another nomination for Vikander or Fassbender. After a summer of failed reboots and Marvel overload, The Light Between Oceans seemed like a welcome break. Toward the beginning of their romance, Tom professes to Isabel, “Loving you has allowed me to feel again.” If the audience had been allowed into their world, we might have been able to feel that too.