The Light Between the Oceans takes place on an island called Janus, named after the Roman god with two faces, allowing him to look in both directions. Like the island and its namesake, the film has two faces. It is both a tender love story and a survey of different types of grief and the ways people cope with loss.
The story centers on Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a World War I veteran who seeks employment at a remote lighthouse as a means to escape society and deal with the trauma of the war and his troubled past. On his way to the assignment, he meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), a vivacious young woman mourning the loss of two brothers in the war. When Tom’s contract on Janus is extended from six months to three years, he and Isabel marry. Their passionate and playful marriage helps Tom cope with the isolation of keeping the lighthouse, but soon they struggle to start a family, as Isabel suffers heartbreaking miscarriages.
As she fights to cope with her losses, a boat washes up on the island, carrying a dead man and an infant to the Sherbourne’s home. Isabel convinces Tom to pass the baby off as the child they just lost rather than record the incident in the lighthouse’s log and radio for help. Years later, when the family returns to Australia for the little girl, Lucy’s (Florence Clery) baptism, Tom hears about Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), a woman whose husband and infant were lost at sea. Tom is forced to decide if he can continue to carry the secret of what they did, forcing Hannah to grieve without any answers about her family, or if he should confess and risk tearing his own happy family apart.
The plot of The Light Between the Oceans is compelling and full of motifs in the dialogue and art direction that help illustrate the complex emotions the characters experience, as well as the structure of the story. These narrative details are complemented by the attention to wardrobe, camerawork, sound, and set dressing. It is a beautiful film that captures the time and the remote place of the setting, creating an intimate portrait of a marriage that supports the heartache of the story in such a way that it really resonates.
That said, the film does eventually start to sag under the weight of the plot. Although the scenes around Isabelle’s miscarriages and her struggle to keep Lucy are stunning, as the plot starts to plod along, I really felt the loss of her joy and playfulness showcased in the first act. This made sense emotionally, but watching the film feels lopsided, too heavy in many parts, making the second half drag to an exhausting ending.
The performances are similarly lopsided. The chemistry between Fassbender and Vikander could have carried the whole film if it had not been so beautifully made. Individually, their performances are striking portrayals of grief and love. Then, as Hannah, Weisz is so pitiful that it is difficult to connect with her side of the story. In part, the problem is that her side if the story is given too little, too late, but her acting seems to hit one note very well and therefore pales in comparison to the depth and range demonstrated by the other leads.
Although The Light Between the Oceans is thoughtfully and beautifully crafted, the pacing issues and the uneven treatment of the story detract from the experience of the story. I rate it 3.5/5 stars.
The Light Between the Oceans was directed and written by Derek Cianfrance, based upon the novel by M.L. Stedman. It runs 132 minutes and is rated PG-13.
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