Movie review: The Light Between The Oceans is a powerful story of love and loss
–We have transitioned from the summer season, known for blockbusters, CGI effects and over-the-top comedy, to the fall. Over the coming months as 2016 comes to a close, we’ll see movies with rich performances, engrossing stories and haunting narratives. That’s certainly true of “The Light Between the Oceans.”
The film centers on a couple that choose to strand themselves at a lighthouse on a remote island. There, they fall deeper in love with each other while enduring their share of struggles. When a child washes ashore aboard a rowboat, it seems to be the answer to their prayers.
Soon, it becomes something else entirely. The ethical and moral questions at the heart of the story power this film, as do some excellent performances. If “The Light Between the Oceans” is a sign of things to come, we could be in for a rich and rewarding fall movie season.
The film begins with Tom (Michael Fassbender), a soldier returning from World War I in 1918 and accepting a post at a lighthouse on a desolate island off the Australian Coast. Tom isn’t ready to return to the world after four years at war. He needs the quiet and solitude to find his was back. But before he heads out, he meets a young town girl, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who weighs on his mind.
Tom and Isabel stay connected, mostly via letters, and soon find themselves in love and married. Isabel joins Tom on the island and it isn’t long before she finds herself pregnant. But she loses the child. Undeterred, they try again. And, again, the child doesn’t survive.
In the midst of loss and despair, an answer washes ashore aboard a rowboat. A healthy baby girl arrives on the island with her deceased father and no further information. Tom wants to report it and see about adopting the girl, but Isabel convinces him to cover it up and keep the child, pretending it’s their own.
Years pass and the family grows. When Tom, Isabel and their young daughter come ashore for a respite with family, they encounter a women mired in grief. Hannah (Rachel Weisz) lost her family when her husband and infant daughter disappeared in a rowboat one evening.
Confronted by the misery he’s caused in others, and haunted by guilt over the lie, Tom feels conflicted by the perfect life he’s built with Isabel. The question is how he will respond.
Writer/director Derek Cianfrance doesn’t do light, breezy films. His first feature, “Blue Valentine,” was about a married couple whose relationship was disintegrating. His follow up, “A Place Beyond the Pines,” was a haunting tale of two men and their violent intersection. With this third film, he again mines deep, emotional territory. He’s crafted a beautiful looking and haunting film, one that should be remembered come awards season.
What makes it work are the beautiful performances he coaxes out of his lead performers. Fassbender has been nominated for multiple Academy Awards, but has yet to win. Regardless, he continues to deliver beautifully nuanced and layered performances, and does so again with Tom. He’s a man haunted by war. He’s driven by love, but also bound by honor. He plays the conflict beautifully, making it a heart-wrenching film to watch at times.
But he’s matched by Vikander, who won an Academy Award for her work in “The Danish Girl” in February. She should be a strong candidate to repeat after her work as Isabel. She’s an incredibly expressive performer, conveying so much through her face. And Cianfrance works the camera beautifully, focusing tightly on her face often and letting it tell the story.
Not to be left out is Weisz, an Academy Award winner herself, who plays a smaller, more thankless role. It’s a part that could easily have faded to the background somewhat or been overlooked, but it’s vital to the production thanks to her vibrant performance.
“The Light Between the Oceans” isn’t an easy film to watch. Just when you think it’s drained you to the bottom emotionally, the film reaches a new emotional depth. It’s the power of the stories and the characters that draw you. It’s filled with three beautiful performances and it’s shot in such a magnificent way. Cianfrance uses the camera to create the feeling of remoteness and isolation.
This is in contention as the best film of the year so far, and one worth checking out.
“The Light Between the Oceans” has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for thematic material and some sexual content.
Four stars out of four.