Film Reviews

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS

By • Aug 31st, 2016 •

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Fassbender and Vikander give astonishing Oscar-worthy performances. A masterful film not to be missed.

Derek Cianfrance, who wrote and directed BLUE VALENTINE and THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, has proven he can handle emotional material and craft his screenplays for highly intelligent actors. Cianfrance’s films are free of trite emotions and grandstanding acting.

Cianfrance adapted M.L. Stedman’s 2012 novel The Light Between Oceans

and the film stars the extraordinary Michael Fassbender and the extraordinary Alicia Vikander.

Traumatized World War I soldier Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) has returned to Australia after spending four years on the Western Front. Today, we would say he was severely suffering from PTSD. He has seen his fellow soldiers killed right next to him and he has killed many men. Whatever he saw or did while on the Western Front has damaged him. He feels he is not worthy to be among people or to be happy. He has no peace of mind. By his moral standards, he is a guilty man.

As mystic, monks and cave-dwellers before him, Tom seeks solitude. He arrives at a village to “fill in” for the Janus Rock lighthouse keeper who has fallen ill. The isolation got to him and he started hallucinating. Tom assures the townspeople he welcomes the harsh environment, the tough work, and the lack of companionship.

Tom has a brief introduction to the young daughter of one of the town’s elders, Bill Graysmark (Garry Macdonald). Having lost her two older brothers in the war, Isabel (Vikander) is trapped in a grieving family. In Tom, the vivacious and eager Isabel sees mystery, charm and a good man. After a very courtship, Isabel and Tom marry.

Their life on the island is idyllic but incomplete. Isabel yearns for a child. She miscarries her first pregnancy and only her second pregnancy lifts the despair and unhappiness from her. When her second pregnancy also ends in a miscarriage, Isabel loses her will to live. Tom can do nothing to help her.

Yet, soon after, an omen appears. Tom sees a rowboat approaching the shore. Tom runs from the lighthouse to the boat and bringing it to the shore. He finds a dead man and a crying infant.

One of Tom’s responsibilities is to keep a very thorough log and it is his duty to account for the rowboat, the man and the child. But Isabel sees the baby as the ocean’s gift to her and she demands Tom bury the man, get rid of the rowboat and let her keep the baby as their own.

Seeing how much love Isabel gives the baby and her absolute joy, Tom agrees. But he is torn by his responsibilities and moral code.

During the next four years, Tom has completely bonded with the child they have named Lucy. At Lucy’s christening, Tom and Isabel are introduced to Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), the wife of the dead man in the rowboat and the mother of the baby they have told everyone is their own.

The town’s wealthiest citizen has disowned Hannah for marrying a German. Thus the story of why the man and the baby were on the rowboat emerges. By now, Isabel is Lucy’s mother and Tom is her father. The mother-child bond has been established and cannot be broken. Isabel refuses to give up Lucy.

Tom’s submerged guilt reappears and he cannot live with the situation. Hannah says she just wants to know what happened to her husband and child. He understands Hannah’s pain and secretly sends her a note saying her child is safe, well and loved.

Hannah’s father comes to her aid and puts up a reward for information. Tom and Isabel’s life is shattered.

Fassbender’s Tom is introspective and not a wordsmith. Going deep into Tom’s contemplative silence, Fassbender’s rich and superb performance revels every slight emotion Tom is feeling. At first, Vikander’s virginal Isabel is adorable and coquettish. She appears genuinely shy around Fassbender. Isabel’s two miscarriages are acting triumphs for Vikander. Slowly, Isabel’s fierce mother love emerges as the imminent loss of Lucy confronts her. Further, Vikander than must change her performance, as Isabel becomes vengeful as she learns it was Tom who anonymously told Hannah her daughter was alive.

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is not Nicholas Spark-weepy. Though it did ultimately bring me and other women in the audience to tears.

I am strongly recommending THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS and would like to highlight a minor supporting performance, Garry Macdonald as Isabel’s father. Macdonald took a small, standard supporting, stand around role and through his face, voice and body fashioned a completely original character. He gave his character’s few lines enormous weight – he expresses Bill Graysmark’s entire life, revealing bitterness, resignation and disgust at what he cannot change.

I like films that present a conundrum, a choice whether to do something or not. I like characters that are presented with solving a problem with two unsatisfactory choices. THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS presents such a conflict – keep the baby and make your spouse happy or give the baby up to its rightful mother after 4 years.

As I said, Cianfrance is an actor’s director and he clearly adored crafting the romantic life of Tom and Isabel. It’s a beautifully staged romance played out authentically. The cinematography by Adam Arkapaw is glorious and the storm scene compelling. The sound design is terrifying bringing the cruel effects of the storm to the forefront of what Tom and Isabel were facing. Unfortunately, Arkapaw neglects the beautiful Weisz. Yes, she is suffering in the loss of her child and should not be glamorous, but the harsh lighting detracts from what she is saying. Every time she was onscreen, I kept thinking, this is what she must really look like and is was a distraction from her genuine performance.

  Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org/.

Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at victoria.alexander.lv@gmail.com.

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