WARNING: This review contains spoilers
It’s inevitable for acclaimed directors to hit rough patches with at least one of their films, and this weekend spotlights just this with acclaimed indie filmmaker/podcaster Kevin Smith with his film “Yoga Hosers.” Unfortunately, another filmmaker is debuting a dud this week, and that is none other than writer/director Derek Cianfrance. Cianfrance has had two hits thus far with the heartbreaking anti-romance “Blue Valentine” and the three-act character study “The Place Beyond the Pines.” With “The Light Between Oceans,” Cianfrance is unquestionably trying to get more of a mainstream appeal thanks in part to its cast and its distributors. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander star as a couple who end up getting married and move out to a lighthouse, where Fassbender is the keeper for it. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to have children of their own, all seems lost for the two until a boat containing a dead man and his infant daughter washes up on shore. The two informally adopt the child as their own and name her “Lily,” raising her and loving her while keeping up the illusion to everyone around them that she is theirs. As years pass and the secret keeps growing, it soon becomes apparent that they won’t be able to keep things under wraps anymore, which may or may not cause them to get branded as criminals.
On the surface, had all of the ingredients to be a good, even superb, romantic drama. This film is based on a book of the same name by M.L. Stedman, which upon release got glowing reviews. Its leading actors have lots of acclaim and accolades on their resume, with one of them recently receiving the “Best Supporting Actress” Oscar this past year. The distributors behind the movie, DreamWorks Pictures and Touchstone Pictures, have had numerous amounts of success on the awards circuit, and this movie’s September release automatically puts it in “awards season.” How could this possibly go wrong? Well if you see the film, you’ll know exactly why. Disney (Touchstone’s parent company) put an embargo on this that lifted this past Wednesday, and there’s a reason for that: it’s not a good flick.
Before getting into the negative aspects of this cinematic thing, I’ll give credit where credit is due. The cinematography, for most of it, is very well done. Some shots, in particular, are quite gorgeous to witness, particularly on the big screen. The first half isn’t terrible, but it’s nothing amazing. There are some sweet moments between Fassbender and Vikander, and the best scenes involve the two of them with their “child,” played by the wickedly talented newcomer Florence Clery. The best performance was given by Fassbender unquestionably, as he manages to do the best that he can with the material he’s reciting. Now with all of that out of the way, let’s get into why this romantic drama sucks.
Alicia Vikander is as gorgeous as she is talented, but my god is she pretty bad here. To be fair, she’s not awful in the first half of the movie, and she does manage to bring legit emotion to some parts then. Once the child comes into play, though, and the story cuts to years later, THAT is when Vikander goes from pretty good to hysterical as fuck. I’ve seen hammy performances, and I have eaten ham on multiple occasions, but the hamminess of her performance in the second half of this story is borderline comedic. I couldn’t help but giggle to myself at some of the stuff she says and does because of how dumb her actions are. In fact, a lot of the logic that these characters have that affect the decisions made throughout the story are batshit and much easier to solve than they make it out to be.
Because Fassbender’s character is a lighthouse keeper, he has to report on everything that goes on around him. When the boat containing the baby and the dead body, not only does Vikander persuade Fassbender to keep the child, she also convinces him NOT to report the corpse, bury it, and just pretend that the child is theirs. It’s fair that they fear the police taking the child away, but here are two logical solutions, at least in my eyes, on how they could have gotten away with their plan:
1.) Send a report that says “A boat containing a dead man and his child just came ashore. We don’t know the man’s name, but the child is alone and close to death. My wife and I are taking care of the baby now, and should nothing arise we would like to raise it as our own, for my wife recently had her second abortion and needs this in her life.”
2.) Report the dead body, and inform about the rattle in the boat as well. Doing this could make an implication that the body either threw it off the boat or ate it for survival. That way, they can still pretend the child is theirs while also acknowledging both the dead body and the baby that was on board “at some point.”
If they had done any of those scenarios, I guarantee you that things would have gone much better for the characters. But nope, they only dig themselves into a deeper hole than they needed to, and it’s because of this that they end up facing some rather unfortunate consequences.
What pushed the movie off the edge, for me at least, was when Rachel Weisz’s character comes into the story. Surprise surprise; she’s the widow/mother of the child and dead body from all those years ago. Surprise surprise again; she ends up getting her daughter back. There are a couple of problems with this, even if it doesn’t sound like it so far. The first, and undoubtedly biggest, problem is that this woman is so selfish and written so poorly to the point where we as an audience can have not even the slightest ounce of sympathy for her. It’s fine that you named your child “Grace,” but another couple named her “Lucy” and raised her on that name since infancy.
Are you seriously expecting a four-year-old child to accept not only yourself as her new mother but also don a new name now? It’s fine if she’s a grieving yet insecure mother who doesn’t understand how to raise a kid, but I still believe humans do have some morality and common sense in situations like this, even if they’re rare. I guess I can understand some people liking the movie, but I cannot understand how people allow shit like this to get a free pass. It doesn’t help that she does eventually offer to give her child up to the parents she truly loves, on the condition that Vikander testifies against her husband in court for the murder of Weisz’s widow. Vikander’s character might be a slightly mentally unstable woman, but at least she knows how to love and raise a child properly. Weisz’s character is so damn unlikable and irritating with how she tries to win her daughter back that it almost masks over how bad of a performance she gives. Almost.
That’s right, the second problem I had was with Weisz’s performance itself. As hammy and over-the-top as Vikander was, at least she was still somewhat likable, as well as endlessly entertaining and hilarious to watch. Every time Weisz’s character came on screen, I groaned a bit inside. The hamminess in her performance is off the charts, and it doesn’t help that the material she’s working with doesn’t allow her to deliver any sliver of a decent performance in the first place. I can’t entirely blame Weisz for how bad she is in the movie because she’s proven her talents time and time again. However, that doesn’t take away with how bad she is as a whole.
If there’s anyone who deserves to take all of the blame for this, it’s Cianfrance. While he has both written and directed his previous two films, he was only one of three co-writers on each of those. With this, he wrote the screenplay on his own, and thus his genuine writing talents have shown themselves. As a director, he has a confident eye and knows how to tell a story, which he’s shown in his two other films. When it comes to writing a screenplay on his own, though, he doesn’t know how to make characters legitimately empathetic and instead hopes you just are based on the music and the story itself. It’d be easy to blame this on the source material, but I can’t because A.) I haven’t read it and therefore cannot compare the two, and B.) the book at least got stellar reviews upon release. I’ve seen some fellow critics complain about how melodramatic and forced this was, and while they’re not wrong, I’m surprised that THAT is what they’re complaining about the most, and not how poorly written the characters and dialogue are. It stings even more because of how great “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond The Pines” are when it comes to being both engaging stories and raw character studies.
Unless Cianfrance’s other films are among your absolute favorites, and you feel you have to support his latest project, then I don’t see any valid reason to see this in the theater. There might be a couple of sweet moments, a solid performance from Fassbender, and some beautiful shots here and there, but are those aspects all you need to make a great movie? Not at all. At the end of the day, this is a prime example of when someone with a great vision decides to do things all on his own, and the results are quite disappointing. Hammy performances, immoral decisions, nonsensical morals, and mediocre dialogue are the core ingredients that make up this movie as a whole. I believe that Cianfrance is still capable of making good, even great movies, and this one just happened to be a melodramatic blunder. However, I do think he needs to work with at least one other person when writing a screenplay, that way some morality and empathetic human nature can get spliced to enhance the characters, thus enhancing the story and film itself. There are worse movies to have come out this year, but “The Light Between Oceans” is easily one of the most disappointing 2016 has had to offer thus far. And if this is supposed to mark the beginning of “Oscar season,” then it’ll be very intriguing to see what else Hollywood has in store for us these next few months.