Based on M.L. Stedman's debut novel, Derek Cianfrance's The Light Between Oceans is an effectively calculated tearjerker-a beautifully mounted historical drama set in the years just after World War I that is predicated on the terrible dance between happiness and heartbreak. Specifically, the story hinges on how one couple's happiness requires another's sorrow, a divide that is reversed in the film's second half, leaving us with the agonizing question of whether there can be any kind of resolution that does not leave at least one party devastated. To the film's credit, it manages to wind its way to an ending that is both honest and emotionally fulfilling; that is, it doesn't end cynically or in trendy downer fashion, but rather finds a balance between happiness and heartbreak, suggesting that the pains of life, even the worst ones, can be eventually transcended through forgiveness even if they are never fully forgotten.
Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) stars as Tom Sherbourne, who at the beginning of the film has just returned from four years in the trenches. He is a damaged man, one who is looking to escape from humanity, which is why he seeks out and accepts the isolating job of lighthouse keeper on a remote island, where he will be the only soul around for months at a time. However, his protective wall of isolation is eventually broken down by his budding relationship with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina), the daughter of a prominent man on the mainland whom he eventually marries and who goes to live with him on the island. Their life there is idyllic in many ways, untrammeled by the burdens imposed by others, leaving Tom and Isabel free to pursue nothing but each other.
After a while they want to start a family, but two pregnancies end in miscarriages, the first of which happens during a terrible storm while Tom is in the lighthouse and Isabel is alone in the cabin below. The two tiny crosses marking the babies' graves at the top of the island's tallest hill are testament to their sorrow, which is why the unexpected arrival of a wooden dingy one day bearing the body of a recently deceased man and a crying infant feels both surreal and like an answered prayer. Tom, ever dutiful, insists that they report the incident and take the infant back to the mainland, but Isabel, desperate for a child and still in grief over her most recent miscarriage, convinces him to bury the man's body and pretend that the child is theirs. Tom reluctantly agrees, and their lives enter a new stage of bliss, as the baby, whom they name Lucy, grows into a happy, gregarious four-year-old (Florence Clery).
However, their idyll is once against broken when Tom catches a glimpse of a woman (Rachel Weisz) mourning at a cemetery next to the church where Lucy is to be baptized. When he wanders down to the grave marker, he is horrified to see that it is for a man and a child lost at sea around the same time he and Isabel found Lucy. He inquires about the woman and learns that her name is Hannah Roennfeldt and she had married a German man against the wishes of her wealthy and powerful father (Bryan Brown). Tom, his conscience wracked with guilt at having stolen Hannah's child and compounded her grief, feels compelled to come clean about his and Isabel's crime, but she resists. The conflict between his desire to return Lucy to her actual mother and Isabel's desire to continue being Lucy's mother drives a decisive wedge between them, one that may destroy them entirely.
Throughout the film, Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), who both adapted the novel and directed, balances an ethereal sense of bliss with the hard decisions that define lives; working with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Macbeth), he ensures that the film is frequently beautiful, almost to the point of distraction, but always brings it back down to earth via the raw, pained performances by Fassbender, Vikander, and Weisz and a relentless focus on the seeming impossibility of resolution. The ethical consequences of Tom and Isabel's decision, which they convince themselves is the right thing ("We're not doing anything wrong," she declares), are enormous; they make the mistake of assuming there is no one out there who could be affected by what they have done. Hannah is the victim through and through, and her desire to get her child back is completely understandable, even as it threatens to destroy not only Isabel's sense of self, but her relationship with Tom. Fassbender has a particularly tricky role because Tom is frequently a stoic presence-at the beginning of the film when he is purposefully withdrawing from humanity and later when he makes a claim that isn't true in order to protect Isabel at all costs-and Fassbender plays it beautifully, suggesting the turmoil beneath his character's stony face. Vikander and Weisz both play various shades of sadness and distress, but in intriguingly different ways that set them apart and illustrate the divide between their characters.
At its best, The Light Between Oceans confronts us with our inescapable interconnection-about how our choices always affect other people, no matter how isolated we feel we are-and the ultimate healing power of forgiveness. Tom and Isabel make a choice that turns out to be the height of cruelty, even though they are not cruel people, and the latter half of the film deals with the increasingly tense stakes of Tom's decision to try to rectify that cruelty. Bad things happen to good people and good people do bad things, a truism that Cianfrance's film dramatizes with particularly acute urgency and beauty.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © DreamWorks Pictures
Overall Rating: (3.5)
Get a daily dose of San Francisco Star news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.