THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Jack Thompson, Garry McDonald, Bryan Brown, Anthony Hayes, Jane Menelaus, Florence Clery, Thomas Unger, Benedict Hardie, Emily Barclay.
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A melodramatic and heart wrenching tale of love, sacrifice, responsibility, grief, forgiveness, and the impossible choices that parents sometimes have to make for the sake of their children, The Light Between Oceans is a lush and visually gorgeous adaptation of the best selling 2012 novel written by M L Stedman. Fans of the novel will admire it as the film remains reasonably faithful to the source material.
The film takes place in 1918 as the world is starting to adjust to life after wartime. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender, from the X-Men movies, etc) is a former soldier who has returned from the war traumatised by his experiences and just wants to lead a quiet and peaceful life. He accepts the temporary job of light house keeper on the remote Janus Rock, a small island off the coast of Western Australia. He is trying to adjust back into life and loves the solitude afforded by the position. The island is only visited four times a year by a boat bringing supplies and mail.
During frequent visits to the coastal town of Portageuse he meets the pretty Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who is mourning the loss of two brothers during the war. She is  a vivacious young woman, and after a courtship they marry and settle on the small island. Isabel has a couple of miscarriages and despairs of ever being able to have children. Then fate intervenes. A row boat washes ashore. Inside is the body of a dead man and a young baby girl. Tom believes that they should alert the authorities, but Isabel insists on raising the girl as their own.
All goes well until during a visit back home, when Tom spies a woman in the local church cemetery. Hannah (Rachel Weisz) is standing over the grave of her husband and young daughter who were lost at sea, presumed dead. Hannah has been disowned by her wealthy father (Bryan Brown) because she married Frank, a German baker and had a daughter whom they named Grace. One day after being harassed by the townsfolk Frank jumped into a rowboat with Grace, but the two were lost at sea.
Driven by a sense of guilt, Tom writes a letter to Hannah in which he says that the baby is fine. Hannah and her father press the local police into investigating, but nothing happens for a while. But later Tom is arrested and charged with killing Frank. Grace is returned to Hannah, her biological mother, but is upset and confused by what is happening. Eventually Tom, Isabel and Hannah have to make a tough and emotionally devastating decision, one that will have consequences that will affect the sleepy little coastal town. The Light Betwen Oceans explores how sometimes good people make bad choices.

Director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond The Pines, etc) gives this melodrama an epic cinematic sweep and emotional heft, although the film lacks the raw emotional punch of his Blue Valentine, which explored the breakdown of a relationship. His direction here seems more restrained. This is the first film Cianfrance has directed that is not based on an original story he has written and he seems a little constrained by the material. He tries to wring every drop of emotion from the story and ultimately it becomes a little manipulative and over sentimental. And at 130 minutes it is over long and the languid pacing will test the patience of many.
However, the film is certainly beautiful to look at. It has been shot largely in Tasmania and New Zealand by ace cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom, Top Of The Lake, etc) who makes good use of the widescreen to capture some visually stunning vistas. Arkapaw captures lots of beautiful sunsets and windswept seascapes, and its visual poetry will remind older audiences of David Lean’s sumptuous epic romantic drama Ryan’s Daughter. Alexandre Desplat has provided an atmospheric and haunting score that underpins the emotional nature of the story.
Much of the film was shot in the small Tasmanian town of Stanley, which provides an authenticity to the setting. Cianfrance and his production team have captured authentic period detail here.
Fassbender delivers a rather restrained and low key performance here as the flawed Tom, and he brings a quiet and stoic quality to his performance. He also brings a touch of self-loathing to the role in the film’s later stages. This is a change of pace from his more heroic roles. Isabel’s behaviour is selfish, which makes her a somewhat unlikeable character, but Vikander as usual is terrific and delivers a complex and emotionally wrought performance. Vikander and Fassbender share a strong palpable chemistry, and they are now apparently a couple in real life.

The exceptional ensemble cast features a lot of well known Australian faces in small supporting roles. Jack Thompson is good as the veteran weathered old sea dog who befriends Tom, while Garry McDonald is good as Isabel’s father, and Anthony Hayes plays the local constable. Bryan Brown though is wasted in a small role and given little to do as Hannah’s wealthy and powerful father.
The visually sumptuous The Light Between Oceans seems like Oscar bait. However, the film is a little too long, and its languid pacing will not suit everyone.

★★★

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