Watching “The Light Between Oceans” feels something like visiting an old person, and having them insist heavily that you see every picture they’ve ever taken of their children, despite the fact that you’ve only just met and could therefore have no stake in the histories of their offspring. This film captures that same feeling of boredom brought on by detachment.
The film begins with Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a World War I veteran who’s seen a little too much of humanity and is looking for the sweet solace of solitude. He finds it in a job as a lighthouse keeper, where he is stationed on a remote island. While on leave, he meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander), and falls in love after locking eyes over a dinner table—a surer sign of love in movies, there is not. Shortly after getting married and moving in with Tom on the island, Isabel goes 0 for 2 with pregnancy. But, coincidentally, a rowboat washes ashore one day, holding a newborn baby and a dead man. Isabel—driven mad by her inability to give birth–opts for keeping the child and discarding the body; Tom initially disagrees, but his love for her trumps his moral code. Of course, such a decision cannot be without consequences.
The movie is visually stunning. Even something as commonplace as walking to and fro or pulling weeds becomes majestic and triumphant by the way it’s shot. While in possession of a beautiful, sweeping score, the real soundtrack to the film is that of the beating waves, the growling ocean winds and the distant cries of nautical birds—all of which double as comforting and maddening, depending on the state of things.
There is great joy in watching two great actors at the peak of their powers play off each other, and the budding love between the two comes across honestly. But by the time we exit the budding stage, which is followed naturally by the blooming and browning stages, the film finds that it has little else to offer, other than some seriously wacky plot-twists. At this point, the entire thing becomes almost unbearable and takes on the stench of Oscar-bait. The film becomes entirely controlled by abstract emotions, unable to relate anything to the audience other than “so-and-so is sad; so-and-so is really sad.” It’s like when a person is in tears, so overcome by emotion that they’re only able to get out gibberish and snot.
Director, Derek Cianfrance, has previously revealed his saccharine streak. His last film, “The Place Beyond the Pines,” which I liked, has an entire third act built upon nostalgia for the first two. However, unlike that film, “The Light Between Oceans” doesn’t have the narrative foundation nor the rich, layered characters to sustain it beyond daytime television territory.
2.5 out of 5 stars