Review: The Light Between Oceans is a rattle of a tale.
After coming back from a horrendous war, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is looking for a job that will keep him isolated from the rest of the world. Tom interviews to be the new lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock. This job would allow Tom to live alone on a small island without any other form of human contact for several months at a time. Tom gets the job but before heading to Janus Rock meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander) along with her family for dinner. Isabel and Tom share an immediate connection yet Tom isn’t ready for any long-term commitment. Tom heads off to Janus Rock where he constantly thinks about Isabel and writes her letters.
After six months of isolation, Tom returns to Australia and asks Isabel for her hand in marriage. Tom and Isabel move to Janus Rock where they fall deeper in love and attempt to have a child. While pregnant, Isabel has a miscarriage. The determined couple tries again only to be faced with the same horrifying result. Feeling completely defeated, Isabel sinks into a deep depression until one day when a lifeboat appears carrying a baby and a dead body. Thinking that it is a sign from above, Isabel immediately clings to the baby while Tom wants to report the incident to the officials. Faced with the toughest moral and ethical dilemma of his life, Tom reluctantly adheres to Isabel’s decision to keep the child and name her Lucy. The happiness of parenthood quickly ensues until the couple returns to Australia years later.
Based on a critically acclaimed novel by M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans is not a light-hearted rom-com or drama. The story challenges the audience to question their morals and ethics while falling in love with this beautiful couple that wants nothing more in life than to be parents. It is no shock to me that the film is written and directed by Derek Cianfrance as he loves hard hitting and emotional dramas. Cianfrance knows how to make audiences fall in love with characters and isn’t afraid to show the world as an ugly and unfair place. This film embraces what it is like to love while also tackling a couple’s biggest fear of dealing with a loss of a child.
It has been reported that Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander fell in love while making the film. After seeing the film for myself, I don’t doubt that for a second. Fassbender and Vikander have extraordinary chemistry on-screen as Tom and Isabel. Whenever either actor is on-screen, you can see the pain and heartache in their eyes. You can see the personal dilemma they are facing. Fassbender’s Tom is constantly conflicted and is never at ease, while Vikander’s Isabel just wants to feel the love from her husband and child. The scenes where Vikander breaks down crying are truly heartbreaking and devastating. You feel her pain as if it was your own. Both of these actors embody these characters and their personal struggles and demons. I wouldn’t doubt it if both of them end up with Golden Globe and Oscar Nomination this award season.
The supporting cast is pretty solid as well especially most of Isabel’s family. They don’t have a lot of screen-time but the little time they do have is used rather well. As for Rachel Weisz, I was pretty disappointed with how she played the role of Hannah. I completely understand that the story is centered around Tom and Isabel but still felt like Hannah was always showcased as this weak and desperate woman. I don’t want to spoil what happens, but there is a flashback sequence in which Hannah’s husband says, “You only have to forgive once but to resent you have to do it every day.” While the whole concept does play into the moral and ethical tone of the story, I found Hannah’s action after this scene to be rather unbelievable. Some may argue that it was a sign of true desperation, but I found the conversation between her and Isabel to be completely unrealistic and unintentionally humorous.
Truth be told, I found most of Weisz’ performance to be underwhelming. Her character Hannah just appears and disappears from the story over and over again. The audience isn’t given much reason to care about her, let alone like her as a person. You would think that the film would spend a bit more time developing the character, but instead most her screen-time is spent showcasing her yelling, “I want my baby back. Find her!” I hate to say it but Weisz looked bored in this role, and I didn’t feel like she embraced this character as much as she has in previous films. I love Weisz as an actress, but this is one of her weakest performances of her career.
The film does feel a bit over dramatic at times which as a result hurts the performances by Fassbender and Vikander. I believe that most people can sympathize with this story, but there were a few scenes that felt dramatic just for the sake of feeling dramatic. I also should note that the story relies way too much on convenience. Some examples of this include a pivotal plot point involving a rattle as well as the clichéd running to stop someone from leaving moment. The latter involves Isabel running after Tom and manages to catch up with him even though she had no idea what time he left or where he was going since she hasn’t talked to him in months at that point.
Even with some flaws, I did find the vast majority of The Light Between Oceans to be astoundingly beautiful and heartbreaking. Cianfrance is such a talented filmmaker because he gets so much using so little. Most of this film is centered on Tom and Isabel living on this quiet little island with a lighthouse. It feels incredibly intimate and yet so vast when Cianfrance pulls the camera back on the open ocean. The entire film is so beautiful to look at, and Alexandre Desplat score only adds to that beauty.
Based on several long conversations with three different people, I do believe that this film is a loyal adaption of the book with only a few changes made here and there. I am completely certain that the book did a much better job showcasing the bond between Isabel and Tom with Lucy. In the film, I had a hard time believing that Tom and Isabel felt an emotional attachment to the child. While the story and performance made it abundantly clear that Isabel wanted a child, there weren’t enough scenes showing her and Tom being parents to the child. There weren’t even that many scenes featuring all of them together in a scene.
Clocking in at just around 2 hours and 10 minutes, The Light Between Oceans kept me engaged for the first hour but started to lose me in the second. While I wouldn’t say I was bored with the film, I do wish that I felt the same strong emotional connection for Isabel and Tom as parents as I did for them as a couple. Their bond with Lucy lacked development especially with how important she becomes in the second half. Still, Fassbender and Vikander are a match made in cinematic heaven and deliver two of the best performances of the year. The Light Between Oceans isn’t for everyone, but if you are looking for an emotionally charged drama with top-notch direction and performances, this is a solid pick leading right into the beginning of award season.
Scott “Movie Man” Menzel’s final rating for The Light Between Oceans is an 7 out of 10.