Derek Cianfrance's moral drama makes the absolute most of its cast and setting
In an unspecified part of Australia where almost everyone speaks with the kind of British accent perfected at Rada, washed-up soldier Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) applies for the solitary job as a lighthouse keeper. Warned that the gig, the kind of thing that people in 2016 would jump through social media hoops to get in order to document their year on Instagram, won’t be easy, the taciturn Sherbourne replies “It’s not likely to be tougher than the Western Front.” So begins Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans, an old-fashioned weepie that fizzles with dynamic performances so good you’ll all but forget that at its essence this is a Nicholas Sparks movie.
Before he heading off to the far-flung pharos on Janus Island, Sherbourne pays a visit to the mainland community, locking eyes with the free-spirited (read: she coquettishly feeds seagulls) and emotionally fragile Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), the only child left in a family whose sons all fell at the Somme. Fassbender and Vikander have the kind of undeniable chemistry on screen that could only have also developed off, with the pair having fallen for each other during filming – much like how Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes found a place beyond the pining for each other on the set of Cianfrance’s last project. There follows a dash of earnest epistolary eroticism, with Tom and Isabel telling each other how much the other has affect them, scrunching up their faces to convey sincerity when scribbling or skipped heartbeats at the end of every declaration of love.
Alicia Vikander and Florence Clery in The Light Between Oceans [Dreamworks]
Marrying, Isabel moves to the island’s cottage, the newlyweds’ existence looking like something out of a woollen mill fashion shoot in the pages of an airline magazine between the duty-free cosmetics and the snack list. Removed from the world, their island paradise is idyllic, with the promise of children and a family on the horizon. But storms are coming as well, with Isabel becoming pregnant only to miscarry, the pair utterly unprepared for the realities of a difficult pregnancy a century ago, 100 miles from the mainland. Distraught, a second pregnancy arrives a couple of years later, only for Isabel to miscarry again. Both actors carry these scenes with nuanced disappointment, grief, and pain, generating enough audience goodwill that viewers will ruefully overlook the outright silliness of what happens next.
A baby girl arrives on Janus Island, wailing from the rowing boat in which the dead body of a man lies prostrate. The tightly-wound Tom wants to report it, but convinced by Isabel to wait, and seeing how having a baby to love and care for snaps her out of the depression all but consuming her, he hesitates, instead messaging the mainland to announce the birth of their healthy daughter, Lucy. It’s a somewhat preposterous plot development – how exactly an infant manage to survive the impossible journey is never addressed – but they cast a baby so unbearably cute that you’d probably steal her away to an island yourself, given half the chance.
The new family thrives, until Tom has to confront he and his wife’s act of selfishness; far from the comings and goings back on land, it is only years later that he hears of the misfortunes of Hannah (a mesmerising Rachel Weisz), in mourning for the husband and child she lost years before. So begins the internal battle over what to do, with Tom’s dogged sense of duty butting heads with Isabel’s fiercely protective motherhood. While the whole thing can only play out in one of two ways, Cianfrance gets the most out of his performers, turning the inevitable into inescapably affecting.
Best known for Blue Valentine, arguably the worst first date movie ever committed to celluloid, The Light Between Oceans marks Cianfrance’s first big studio picture, made for Dreamworks after a chance encounter with Steven Spielberg. It is a very old-fashioned film, occasionally teetering just up to the point where it all looks like it could slide from weepie to wallowy, all paired with Alexandre Desplat’s appropriately wistful score. Instead, it’s satisfactorily sombre, well acted, and the best thing to happen to Australian lighthouses since Round the Twist.
The Light Between Oceans (12A/132mins) receives a limited release today before coming out nationwide on Nov 4th
VERDICT: ★★★★☆ Stunning visuals more than make up for predictability of the story, but there’s no denying how hard it is not to fall in love with two actors falling in love with each other