The Light Between Oceans is the kind of film that’d be the favorite of your grandma if it had come out when she was a child, perhaps as the long-awaited reunion between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. It’s an old-school studio melodrama, the kind of movie they used to make a lot of and “don’t make anymore” It’s certainly a handsome picture, with two folks at its head that have a simmering romance and are so beautiful you can’t look directly at them. But there’s a sense of whiffed work and missed opportunity, a film that didn’t atone the sins of its source material and made a series of wrong decisions bringing them there.
Based on the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman (which, plot twist, I’ve actually read for once), The Light Between Oceans is the story of the marriage of Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) and Isabel Sherbourne nee Greysmark (Alicia Vikander). Tom is a WW1 veteran haunted by his memories who takes over the lighthouse on Janus, off the coast of Australia. On visits back, he meets Isabel, a beautiful young woman and the last remaining daughter of the Greysmark family. The two fall in love and he brings her to live on the island with him. Every attempt they make to start a family is met by a traumatic miscarriage.
Until one day, a boat washes up on shore. A dead man holds a live child, a baby girl. Tom and Isabel choose to keep the child and raise her as their own, Lucy. But that decision will have deep ramifications, especially given that her mother Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz) is still alive and in the same town.
This is the third film from writer/director Derek Cianfrance, and his first film to really orient mainstream since the devastating Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. From those films, I really do see what appealed to him and what appealed to producers about him for this story. Both of those films excelled at heightened and raw emotion, and especially excelled at creating real and believable screen couples. Remember that Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes are together from The Place Beyond the Pines and Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander met during the filming of this one.
And his skill in that world is still unquestioned. Together with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (True Detective, Macbeth), Cianfrance crafts a truly potent screen romance. These are gorgeous people in a gorgeous world and every bit of their relationship feels real and lived-in. Fassbender and Vikander too are also well-up to the challenge. They play two halves of a whole, Fassbender shoving down every emotion in a tightly wound ball of darkness and Vikander throwing every emotion out on the surface, practically making her exhaustion felt with every frame she appears in.
Part of Cianfrance’s charm up until now has been the raw nerves he crafts in surprisingly clever structural ways. I don’t want to say gimmicky, that sounds negative, but his nontraditional storycraft often serves to really underline the striking emotion that underlines his stories.
The Light Between Oceans doesn’t have that, it’s too excessively mannered, too composed to really get at the raw nerves of emotion underneath. It’s a melodrama, and the instinct when we we look at emotional romances is to call them such. But that was never really Cianfrance’s game, and this feels a little too far out of his depth. The Light Between Oceans is too controlled a narrative, laid out straightforward and really leaning into a few big emotional moments to work earnestly on the strengths it needs to.
It ends up amounting to something that has a whole lot of screaming and crying and meaningful looks but that never really feels able to peer under the surface to find something to say about romance or morality or anything the film touches on. It’s as much of a nice movie as the original book was a book club book. Something that feels meaningful and deep but is too caught up in appearing as those things to actually ever be either.
The fact that this thing has the same problems as the book extends to the narrative decisions made. I’m going to be frank, I don’t think fidelity to plot is necessarily a virtue in adaptation. As long as the feeling is kept, the key and the spirit of a thing, all else can be changed and removed as seen fit.
The Light Between Oceans is a remarkably faithful adaptation plot-wise, which means it has an absolutely dreadful third act. Part of the compelling nature of this story is that it does actually play with some interesting moral questions over whether it’s right to keep the child and whether our couple is or isn’t doing something wrong.
But remember earlier on how I said this was a book club book? That also means this thing is desperate to have a mass appeal, which means that it can’t ultimately rest on an ambiguous nature that the rest of its narrative demands. It forces itself into a neat bow that feels more eye-roll worthy than anything else. It also posits that Fassbender will age like Superman and still look basically the same 40 years later, just with a few more wrinkles, which at least puts it ahead of the X-Men series.
This story just ultimately ends up going nowhere. It’s beautiful, yes. It’s well-acted, yes. And Alexandre Desplat gives a great, if mildly too-assertive score. But it’s ultimately just boring, to amount to a tidy resolution and take over two hours of my time to get there. Cianfrance can do better, but I don’t think this was the story with which he could.