'The Light Between Oceans': Film Review

Pretty but lifeless.

Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz star in Derek Cianfrance's period melodrama about a childless couple that finds a newborn washed ashore.

The cathartic pleasures of a good old-fashioned weepie are promised and then never delivered in Derek Cianfrance's handsome but curiously lifeless The Light Between Oceans.

That's not to say copious tears aren't shed onscreen. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander do lots of moist emoting — she with chin aquiver, he through stoically clenched jaw — as a couple who find a baby off the coast of Western Australia after World War I, raise her as their own and later are forced to return her to her biological mother (Rachel Weisz). Yes, there are worse ways to spend a few hours than watching two of our prettiest performers swoon in each other’s arms. But the film, poised awkwardly between costume-drama prestige and all-out schmaltz, is so busy sweeping us up in a swirl of music, scenery and beautiful, suffering faces that it forgets to do the actual work of earning our emotions.

Some of the best melodramas — from irresistible tearjerkers like Stella Dallas, The Way We Were and Terms of Endearment to modern masterpieces like Million Dollar Baby and Brokeback Mountain — revolve around characters so rich and relatable that we feel no shame in sniffling, or sobbing, along at their hardships. Others are spiked with humor (All About My Mother) or laced with irony (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life). Many — all of the above, in fact — are rooted in reality, telling tales of economic struggle, single motherhood, racism, homophobia or disease. These are movies that make masochists of us, filling us with the ache of loss, regret or sacrifice until it hurts so good we want to watch all over again.  

Even judged by less exacting standards, The Light Between Oceans is an underwhelming experience. With a tone that's somber bordering on portentous, it turns on three thinly drawn central figures whose fable-like story is driven by the kind of coincidences and contrivances that, aside from being easier to buy on the page than onscreen, make their sorrow feel arbitrary and weightless. Great melodramas can accommodate preposterous plots; Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession is a prime example. But Cianfrance, while a skilled visual craftsman, is not the sublime stylist Sirk was, nor does he have that filmmaker's willingness to lean into the excesses of his material. Based on the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans is a fundamentally silly piece of work — think Nicholas Sparks in period drag — trying to pass as self-respecting. One wonders why the indie-bred Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) pursued something so square as his first major studio project — or, rather, why he leaned so far into the squareness.                                                                          

Fassbender plays Tom, a war-scarred veteran who, in the film's opening scene, accepts a gig as lighthouse keeper on the uninhabited Janus Rock. He's looking forward to the solitude after the horror and chaos of the trenches, he says in his job interview. While visiting a nearby town shortly after, Tom meets Isabel (Vikander), a fetching young woman who makes eyes at him across a lunch table and pierces his reserve with stories of her own grief (she lost two brothers in the war).

The subsequent courtship yields some eye-rolly exchanges, as when Isabel asks Tom what he wishes for in the future and he responds, simply, "Life." The epistolary phase of their romance is equally dewy, with the two exchanging letters heard via voiceover: "You have a light inside you," Tom writes to his beloved. John Keats he's not, but Isabel adores him. They marry and she moves into his isolated seaside cottage, which is as quaint and inviting as something out of a Better Homes and Gardens spread. Cue montage of sun-dappled embraces, wind-tousled hair and sweet nothings whispered, set to Alexandre Desplat's unremarkably lovely score. It's all enough to make Terrence Malick blush.

The couple tries to have a child, but Isabel miscarries twice. Tom's panicked cries ("Tell me what to do!") as his wife clutches her belly in pain for the second time — a nightmare repeating itself — make for a moment of authentic rawness in a film of sentiments that often seem more mimed than deeply felt.

But quicker than you can say "deus ex machina," a dinghy drifts toward the beach with a dead man and a howling newborn inside it. While Tom buries the body, Isabel tends to the baby, her attachment immediate and visceral. Lifted out of her grief by what she sees as an answer to their prayers, Isabel talks a more circumspect Tom out of reporting the child to the authorities. Before long, both of them are gaga over little "Lucy," and agree to pass her off as their own.

A few years later, during a trip to Isabel's hometown, Tom and Isabel meet Hannah (Weisz, fine but underused), a haunted-looking woman whose husband and daughter went missing at sea around the very time Lucy washed ashore. You guessed it (even if Hannah doesn't): Lucy is actually Hannah's long-lost child, and the corpse in the dinghy was that of her German husband (played by Leon Ford in flashbacks).

Isabel is racked with guilt, but her love for Lucy (now played by Florence Clery) is more powerful than any misgivings. "I'm her mother," she hisses at Tom when he pleads with her to give the girl up. Vikander is impressive — like Marion Cotillard, she's able to access red-hot emotions without a hint of actorly strain — but she's not given many notes to play beyond teary defiance. Fassbender, too, is fine, though his work here confirms that he's more compelling in dysfunctional roles — the sexy interloper in Fish Tank; Carl Jung, consumed with passion for his patient in A Dangerous Method; a sadistic slave-owner in 12 Years a Slave; Steve Jobs — than in a regular-guy register.

Despite the stars' considerable chemistry, and their best crying faces, Tom and Isabel come across more as literary constructs than flesh-and-blood individuals. Part of the problem is that Cianfrance glosses over the everyday nuts and bolts of their life together, both before and after Lucy's arrival, instead padding the 132-minute running time with those semi-lyrical perfume-commercial-like interludes. After delivering a powerful dissection of a marriage gone wrong in Blue Valentine, Cianfrance paints in broad brushstrokes here, failing to bring many shades or much texture to the central relationship. The result is that the excruciating choices Tom and Isabel make later in the story — concerning Lucy, but also one another — don't resonate the way they should.

Aside from the expected overindulgence in close-ups, Cianfrance and DP Adam Arkapaw (Macbeth) keep things fluid, sober and relatively restrained — which doesn’t necessarily mean The Light Between Oceans is very interesting to look at. Shot in New Zealand and Tasmania, it boasts ravishing shots of breaking waves, mercurial skies and reeds tilting in the wind. But as with everything else in the film, it’s all artfully presented surface, scrubbed clean and coated with polish; there’s little sense of roughness or wildness beneath the beauty.

None of this is likely to matter to some viewers, who will find the trappings — gorgeous actors, breathtaking landscapes and heartstring-tickling music — enough to make them misty-eyed. The rest of us will save our tears for another movie.

Venue: Venice Film Festival
Distributor: Buena Vista

Production companies: A Heyday Films/DreamWorks Pictures/Reliance Entertainment/Participant Media/Touchstone Pictures/Amblin Entertainment Production
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery, Jack Thompson, Thomas Unger, Jane Menelaus, Garry McDonald, Bryan Brown, Leon Ford
Director: Derek Cianfance
Writer: Derek Cianfrance, adapted from M.L. Stedman's novel
Producers: David Heyman, Jeffrey Clifford
Executive producers: Tom Karnowski, Rosie Alison, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King
Director of photography: Adam Arkapaw
Production designer: Karen Murphy
Editors: Ron Patane, Jim Helton
Costume designer: Erin Benach
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Casting: Francine Maisler, Nikki Barreett

Rated PG-13, 132 minutes