If you’re excited about The Light Between Oceans, the new film starring Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander and directed by Derek Cianfrance, it’s probably based on the people involved. If that’s you and you’ve somehow managed to avoid seeing the trailer (which goes into more detail about the plot than we will in this review, so watch with caution), then you’re best placed to appreciate this slow-burning and emotionally turbulent drama by heading straight to the cinema.
In 1918, war veteran Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) seeks solitude after his experiences in battle, and finds it in a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, off the coast of Tasmania. This doesn’t last long though, when he falls in love with local girl Isabel (Vikander). After a long and flirty correspondence through letters, the two marry and get on with starting a family on Janus.
But their attempts to have a child are tragically waylaid by circumstance over the following three years and Isabel’s desire to be a mother only intensifies as time goes on. Then, as fate would have it, a rowboat washes up on the shore, carrying a corpse and a baby girl. Although Tom is duty-bound to report the discovery, Isabel convinces him that they should raise the child as their own, a decision which has far-reaching consequences for all concerned.
In some ways, Cianfrance’s films Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines feel like a lay-up for his adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s 2012 novel. Although it’s his first film to be based on a literary source, his previous films were also novelistic in their scale, each following their characters on an emotional voyage across a generation. The Light Between Oceans is more slowly paced than either of them while covering a similar breadth of story time, but it’s no less affecting for it.
It also has tour-de-force performances in common with those earlier films, top-billed and unquestionably chief among which is Fassbender. He’s reliably great whether in dramas like these or less demanding blockbusters like this summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse, but here, he’s at the peak of his acting powers. Tom ostensibly escaped ‘the war to end all wars’ intact, but his intense survivor’s guilt and ceaseless nobility snakes its way through the drama to devastating effect, with the star conveying incredible depths of emotion in just a stare.
Vikander arguably has an even harder role to carry off, as a character who makes the wrong choice for the right reason and becomes ever more complicated from there. But she’s superb too, remaining sympathetic even as the film gets into its slightly shaky third act. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the two stars, who are partners in real life, have such strong chemistry here – not for nothing, but this is one of those romantic films where the on-screen relationship benefits from having two actors who genuinely fancy each other.
The first hour of the film flies by as we get swept up in Tom and Isabel’s mutual attraction, set at first within the social confines of the harbour town where she grew up and then let off the leash once they arrive on Janus as husband and wife. Adam Arkapaw’s gorgeous cinematography gives their lonely island a timeless appeal as the couple get lost in one another.
But their romantic isolationism has a downside and once the other shoe drops, the film spirals into dizzying melodrama. Rachel Weisz is introduced as a tragic character for whom life goes on outside of the little bubble in which Tom and Isabel have been living and she delivers a heart-wrenching performance as the wronged party in all of this. Weisz elicits such sympathy that the film is almost thrown completely off balance from the moment she appears.
Thereafter, the film falters a little as it goes on. Certainly, Alexandre Desplat’s uncharacteristically cloying score reaches fever pitch before the real emotional bombshells have a chance to register and by the end, it feels like you’re being led by the soundtrack rather than the story. Finally, the film’s epilogue feels somewhat jarring after the deliberate pacing of what has gone before, even though it does provide satisfying closure for at least one of the characters.
The Light Between Oceans is a tearjerker that moves just a little more jerkily the longer it goes on, but it’s bursting with sympathy for its flawed characters. It takes great pains to build up a moral dilemma into an emotionally impossible situation, and even if it were not so even-handed and mature, the sheer combined might of Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz makes it transfixing to the last moment.
The Light Between Oceans is in UK cinemas now.