“The Light Between Oceans” has an overwhelming sense of location. It’s set off the coast of Western Australia, primarily on a small, secluded island known as Janus Rock. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance, along with cinematographer Adam Arakapaw make expert use of that beautiful, wild land. We get constant shots of the sea line as clouds sit on the horizon, often covering the orange setting sun, characters slowly walking up and down the rocky terrain or on the beach as the camera tracks them from afar. Waves crash along the shore; the roar of the wind can be heard over the soundtrack. The experience of watching the film can be hypnotic, almost dreamy as if you’ve become stranded in this beautiful, rugged paradise yourself.
And yet, most of the time, it doesn’t feel like paradise. Despite the fact that the promotional posters show lead actors/beautiful human beings Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander passionately embracing in close-up (I guess if you have those two actors you may as well promote your movie like that) “The Light Between Oceans” is a mostly somber affair. Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a World War 1 veteran looking for some peace a quiet. He takes a job as lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, however after a few months he’s unable to get local gal Isabelle (Vikander) out of his head--so he marries her. It’s an idyllic, picture perfect romance at first—lots of making out, smiling, frolicking on the beach—that soon takes a turn for the worst.
The movie can’t help but feel a little over-the top regarding its narrative. Doesn’t the idea of a period romance revolving around a lighthouse keeper and his wife on a secluded island feel, I don’t know, really really really hokey? The kind of supermarket romance novel you’re ashamed to be reading? I mean, a lighthouse keeper? Really? When the narrative melancholia begins to seep in, as Tom and Isabel run into their first major relationship challenge, things don’t get any less silly. They are unable to have kids; Isabel has not one but two miscarriages (kind of excessive, if you ask me). Later on, they rescue a baby from a stray rowboat after a storm (I’m not joking) and decide to raise it as their own daughter. Again, it feels over the top.
Fortunately, Cianfrance applies such a delicate, artful directorial touch (it’s reminiscent of Terrence Malick sans all the poetic voice overs) that keeps the film from turning into complete melodramatic drivel. The material may be slightly hokey, “b” grade romance but by god it’s still a beautiful movie to watch.
It also helps that Fassbender and Vikander are superb together. Fassbender is soft-spoken, slightly timid and effortlessly charismatic. It’s Michael Fassbender after all. He’s going to be charming in a romantic movie. Here he plays what is perhaps the nicest man in the history of cinema. Seriously. Tom is generous and compassionate at every turn, totally devoted to Isabel and her every need. In fact he’s too nice. I’m not saying Tom needed to be a jerk but a character that’s nice all the time gets dull after a while, even if Michael Fassbender plays him. Meanwhile, Vikander is sweet and gentle, with an undercurrent of anger and callousness. Isabel reaches a point where she turns selfish and cruel. However, considering all the emotional torment she’s been through you can’t dislike her entirely.
Additionally, the film benefits from the arrival of a third protagonist Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachael Weisz, understated and tragic), the birth mother of the recovered baby girl. Cianfrance doesn’t always balance the three characters and multiple narratives well (I think he introduces Hannah too late, causing backstory involving her husband and life before losing her child to be rushed) but Hannah’s own tragic and uplifting journey is a welcomed addition to the narrative and is arguably more intriguing than the romantic up and downs of Tom and Isabel. What would it feel like to lose your child and then find out they’ve been secretly living with another family? And how heartbreaking would it be for your own child to view you as a stranger? Cianfrance explores these questions with tenderness and nuance.
“The Light Between Oceans” goes on longer than it needs to. The final scene (an epilogue of sorts set way in the future) is unnecessary--cramming in one last tragedy and trying to end the movie on more of an epic, multigenerational note. I get what Cianfrance was going for but overall the scene falls flat. In lesser hands, I think this movie would be a sappy melodramatic mess. As it is, while not flawless and not totally avoiding melodrama, “The Light Between Oceans” is a beautiful, well-acted romantic drama.