Review: The Light Between Oceans
PLOT: At the end of World War I, a war veteran seeks out a quiet life on the western coast of Australia as a lighthouse keeper. He eventually falls in love with a beautiful young teacher, and together they forge a happy life on an isolated island. A series of miscarriages threatens to doom them, but when they find a baby in a rowboat washed upon the shore, they make the fateful decision to keep it for themselves and raise it as their own.
REVIEW: THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is about half of a really strong movie, half of a narratively challenged one. I haven't read the M.L. Stedman book of the same name that it's based on, but I'm guessing the major problems stem from there. What begins as a simple, moving and emotionally involving story ends up going around and around, throwing climax after climax our way, searching for just the right resolution. It's like it wants to satisfy every audience member by providing them with their preferred ending; find the one you want and then tune the rest out. I was really liking this movie for a while, too.
Directed by Derek Cianfrance, who does heartfelt melodrama well (BLUE VALENTINE, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES), OCEANS' first act just about nails everything, from the tenor of the performances to the way each scene holds just long enough on meaningful glances and unspoken yearnings to the stunning postcard-perfect visuals. It's a classic old-fashioned romantic epic, stuffed with metaphors and intense earnestness, and it moves along so well for a while that I was downright smitten with it. But it can't hold this hypnotic spell for long, as neither the author nor Cianfrance can wrap it up tidily.
It's near the end of World War I, and Tom (Michael Fassbender) has arrived in Australia looking for some solitude. He's got the haunted eyes of a veteran who's seen enough death for a hundred lifetimes, and he's eager to be somewhere far away from the rest of the world. Nabbing a job as a lighthouse keeper, Tom manages to find some serenity all alone on a picturesque island. He finds more serenity still when he makes a scheduled trip back to the mainland and catches the eye of Isabel (Alicia Vikander), beautiful daughter of one of the small town's officials. The attraction is instant, and after some months and many handwritten letters have gone by, the two get married and Isabel moves to the island with Tom.
All's right in the world, especially when Isabel gets pregnant. But not long after, she suffers a miscarriage, which naturally devastates her. She finds herself pregnant again a while later, but another miscarriage has her on the verge of insanity. (These miscarriage sequences, by the way, are stunningly acted by Vikander.) One day, a boat washes upon the shore; it carries a dead man and a crying baby. For Isabel, the choice is clear: take the baby, get rid of the body and no one will be the wiser. Tom isn't so convinced, but at the risk of sending Isabel completely off the deep end, he acquiesces, and they eventually raise the child as their own and manage an idyllic existence on their own private world. Years later, they meet a woman in town, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), who is still grieving the loss of her husband and child at sea... What to do now?
It's around here the story starts to fall apart. Yes, Tom and Isabel have found themselves in quite the dilemma, and there's no doubt Hannah is a heartbreaking figure, but the things these characters begin to do just make no logical sense. They add to the plot, yes, and suddenly the movie finds itself busy with several new developments; what was once such a serenely simple tale starts wavering awkwardly as the author keeps piling unnecessary twists on top of it. The last 30 minutes of the movie are quite unwieldy, and I found myself in the unfortunate position of looking at my watch and hoping it would end. And end it does, three, four different times. Not unlike the recent SEA OF TREES, OCEANS can't seem to find the right note to go out on, so it keeps on restarting the finale. Before we know it, this situation that was once so interesting has turned into a soap opera.
Still, the movie's beautiful first half can't be ignored. Aided by Adam Arkapaw's brilliant cinematography, Alexandre Desplat's swooning score and Erin Benach's elegant costume design, Cianfrance flirts with greatness often enough during the film that some of it still sticks with me. The performances by Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz are all stellar, all of them taking these complex characters to heart and looking worn out by the experience. (Vikander in particular is just magnificent. If it wasn't already clear by now, she's the real deal.) These are characters you're taken by, and you do indeed want to learn their individual fates. Sadly, THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS doesn't treat them, or us, nearly well enough in the end.
CLICK IMAGE TO OPEN GALLERY & SEE MORE PICS...