Mark Reviews Movies

The Light Between Oceans


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery, Jack Thompson, Thomas Unger, Gary Macdonald, Jane Menelaus

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and some sexual content)

Running Time: 2:12

Release Date: 9/2/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 1, 2016

Here is a tough, complex morality play in the guise of a good, old-fashioned melodrama. The Light Between Oceans puts two decent people, who have had too much tragedy in their lives, in a position in which they can alleviate the tragic circumstances of an innocent human being. On the face of it, this is a morally right decision—a selfless act in which they will include a complete stranger in their lives for the stranger's benefit.

Look at this situation just a level beneath that surface one, and it becomes something else entirely. This is a married couple in desperate want of a child. A child does arrive just beyond the shore of their isolated home, when a baby in a rowboat that has been stranded at sea washes ashore on the island where the couple has lived for a few years.

Obviously, this is not a normal occurrence. On an additionally obvious level, the child has parents, one of whom may very well have been in the boat with the baby. The man accompanying the newborn has died. As far as the couple knows, this is the only person in the child's life, but now they are part of her life, too. This is a time for decision.

The film's drama hinges entirely on that decision, the motives behind it, and the seen and unknown consequences of it. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance (adapting the novel by M.L. Stedman) is willing to put the choice up to scrutiny in a way that very easily could transform these seemingly noble characters into villains. We know it is a selfless act that has its foundation in selfishness. We know who benefits from the choice, but we come to learn of the people who are harmed by it, too. Eventually, these contradictions mount and pile upon themselves until it becomes apparent that no one will benefit. Plenty of people, though, will be harmed.

Before any of the complications, Cianfrance presents us with a story of pain and romance—love formed out of a shared sense of sorrow, love conquering the sorrows of the past, new sorrows threatening that love in the future. It's a bold move in an era that looks at such sentimentality with cynicism and requires something to distance an audience from such forthright romanticism—in the form of comedy, irony, or transparent formula. Instead, Cianfrance's approach is completely sincere. This is a film featuring love at first sight, written correspondences, montages of love blooming, and lovers embracing against beautiful backdrops.

The lovers are Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a veteran of the Great War who has returned home to Australia for some peace and quiet, and Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), the daughter a local businessman. Tom takes a temporary job as the keeper of a lighthouse on an island that's hundreds of miles away from civilization. Upon returning to the local port after a three-month stint, Tom is offered a full-time position, and Isabel takes his return as an opportunity to ask him out on a picnic.

She says she would like to visit him on the island. He tells her that the only woman who would be allowed there would be the lighthouse keeper's wife. She half-jokingly proposes.

No sooner does Tom return to the lighthouse than he makes his own proposal through a letter after their brief correspondence. The story unfolds in double time—a tender round of love-making as the rotating light above their cottage illuminates their faces, a lot of happy moments, a pregnancy, a miscarriage, a bout of depression, a second pregnancy, another miscarriage.

That's when the dinghy arrives with the wail of the crying baby piercing the air. Tom, a strict adherent to procedure, wants to contact the mainland. Isabel wants them to raise the baby as their own. He cannot say no to her. They simply will say Isabel's second pregnancy came to term early.

Cianfrance again takes us through their family life in double time, not only because the meat of this material resides in the tough choices the two must make but also for thematic reasons. The everyday lives of these people become routine. Happiness in this situation is fleeting, and while the truth of the child's origin may be a distant thought on that remote island, it is inevitable that the truth will out.

Enter Hannah (Rachel Weisz), whom Tom notices at the cemetery while the happy family waits for the local vicar to baptize the baby. The story proper stops shortly after that encounter to take us through Hannah's life of temporary happiness followed by seemingly permanent pain—a romance like Tom and Isabel's, a baby, an unanticipated tragedy born out of prejudice. Tom is torn between his devotion to his family—his wife and unofficially adopted daughter—and the heartache of a stranger whom he knows he can help.

We, too, are torn, although in a way that the characters cannot possible see or know. There comes a point here when the fact that there is no way for this scenario to have a pleasant ending becomes inescapable. We have seen these lives—their joys and their sorrows. We know just enough about these three characters that we can understand and sympathize with their motives—a husband wanting to ease his wife's grief, a woman who cannot bear having another promise of a child ripped from her, a mother who cannot abandon the sliver of hope she has left.

At a certain point, there is no longer a correct or morally right way to reconcile the conflicting needs and desires of these characters. The Light Between Oceans is distinctly melodrama, but it's one of the sort that pulls on our sense of right and wrong instead of the heartstrings.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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