With its exquisite scenery, romantic tale of passion and dire misfortune, swelling musical score and leading actors who are one of Hollywood’s most attractive real-life couples, “The Light Between Oceans” has all the markings of a class act.
Adapted by writer-director Derek Cianfrance from M.L. Stedman’s bestselling novel, this unapologetically weepy, handsomely staged melodrama revolves around an almost superhumanly restrained protagonist, lighthouse keeper and traumatized World War I veteran, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender).
But counterbalancing his character’s chiseled stoicism is a willingness to go for broke – in the form of garment-rending scenes of loss and separation, and lots of tear-streaked close-ups – that indicate where the movie’s temperamental heart really lies.
As “The Light Between Oceans” opens, Tom has just fetched up in a coastal Australian town in order to replace the light keeper who’s convalescing, a prologue eerily reminiscent of “The Shining,” with its intimations of death and madness. But where the tale could easily accommodate the moody conventions of gothic horror, Stedman and Cianfrance instead embrace its fable-like lyricism and dewy-eyed tragedy: In time, Tom takes Isabel (Alicia Vikander) – a comely, refreshingly direct local girl – as his wife, and they repair to his little island for an enchanted honeymoon period.
But sadness soon descends, when they’re unable to start a biological family. Then, when circumstances conspire to bring a baby into their lives, “The Light Between Oceans” becomes a fraught, occasionally manipulative conundrum that the author and filmmaker desperately try to portray as a genuine moral quandary, when any clear-thinking person can discern folly and selfishness on one hand and the clear, correct path on the other.
Cianfrance knows his way around domestic drama – he wrote and directed the shattering marriage-drama “Blue Valentine,” with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. But he’s hemmed in by material that’s not only dubiously equivocating but structurally ungainly, especially when another love story emerges to compete with the idealized portrait of Tom and Isabel’s marital devotion.
That second tale is embodied by Rachel Weisz in a performance that’s as honest and touching as Vikander’s is keening and hysterical (especially in an unfortunate scene that forces her to scream, “Don’t take my baby!”). At just over two hours, “The Light Between Oceans” feels lugubrious and too long, but also oddly perfunctory, especially when it comes to Weisz’s story line and the character who emerges as the film’s unlikely moral center.
Filmed in Australia and New Zealand with lots of beautiful shots of water, sky and grassy headlands, and featuring a marvelous score by Alexandre Desplat, “The Light Between Oceans” has obviously been filmed with good taste and exacting care – right down to the wonderful infant and child actors Cianfrance found to play a foundling who becomes the object of desire and harrowing, overwrought self-sacrifice.
And, let’s face it, there’s very little not to recommend staring at Fassbender’s limpid blue eyes and square jaw for a couple of hours during the dog days of summer. Nominally, “The Light Between Oceans” refers to the beacon’s location at the geographic point where the Indian and Pacific meet, but it could just as easily be a hint at the salty tears it’s been so carefully manufactured to induce. Ladies and gentlemen, let your hankies unfurl.
Two and one-half stars. Rated PG-13. Contains potentially disturbing material involving miscarriage and brief scenes of sexuality. 132 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.