This latest film by Derek Cianfrance – director of Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines – shares some common ground with his earlier work, given that it too is a slow, rather downbeat affair about people who end up in miserable situations (partly, at least, of their own making) and who must face up to the consequences of their actions. It will presumably only find a small audience in a world that seems to favour fast-paced all-action franchise blockbusters, thrill-heavy horrors, brightly-animated kids films and low-brow adult comedies above all else, at least in terms of what is popular at the cinema of today. However, those that decide to check it out will find a film with some striking cinematography and some excellent acting by the three principal cast members: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz.
Fassbender and Vikander play Tom and Isabel, a couple who begin their married life a few years after the end of World War I, living on a remote rock off the coast of Tasmania; his job is to ensure that the island’s lighthouse keeps running at all times. The place is barren, which serves as an obvious metaphor for her brace of miscarriages, as does the untuned piano in their house, an object which is used to suggest that Isabel’s body is not operating as it should. And so despite their initial happiness and constant love for one another, their matrimony is ultimately defined after a few years by their inability to have a child together. Suddenly – and rather unbelievably, it must be said – their second period of mourning is interrupted when a small sailing boat washes ashore; inside there’s a dead man, but also a baby girl, who has miraculously survived on rough seas. Rather than report the incident, as they should, the couple jointly decides to bury the body and adopt the baby, raising it as their own, theorising that no-one back on the mainland will be any the wiser. Problems arise – and, it must be said, the film finally gets going – when Tom beecomes so racked with guilt that he contacts the baby’s real mother (Weisz) anonymously, to let her know that her child has survived and is safe. Their community is not particularly large, so it seems a matter of time before Tom and Isabel’s secret is discovered.
The Light Between Oceans cruises along during an elongated first act, though I must admit that the slower pace and the time given over to establishing the two main characters works in the film’s favtors our in the long-term: we see that Tom is a stoic man with a strong sense of duty, while Isabel’s pain and longing after her miscarriages is explored in detail; given the lack of things to do on the small island, these understandably play on her mind and come to define her character until the baby in the boat arrives. This all makes their subsequent actions in the second and third acts a lot easier to understand, and to swallow. The first act is also successful in establishing the love the two characters have for one another. There may be countless close-ups of Fassbender and Vikander as they gaze into one another’s eyes, but there is genuine chemistry between the two (not a given, despite the fact that the two actors fell in love on set), and their romance is entirely believable and eminently watchable.
As stated above, I feel the story only ever shifts gears (from first to second) when Weisz’s character Hannah enters the story, though I must admit that given the predominance of fast-paced films in my local multiplex of late the slower-than-usual speed of this one made for a welcome change. The scenes themselves are not elongated, as such, but Cianfrance seems unhurried and regularly splits them with brief montages that allow Alexandre Desplat’s score room to breathe and that show off Adam Arkapaw’s stunning and inventive photography. The latter is one of the film’s great strengths: considering much of the action takes place at first on a small patch on a small island and latterly in a coastal town that barely covers a square mile, the cinematographer manages to shoot the same recurring locations in different ways, which makes the film seem less staid, and fresher; the editing by Jim Helton and Ron Patane also neatly incorporates Arkapaw’s dazzling array of seascapes, landscapes and shots of the sky at night, which are filmed from all kinds of angles. These allow some respite from the heavy, rather depressing narrative.
The film is unabashedly sentimental at times, and unfortunately a couple of corny moments arrive during the final half hour as Cianfrance attempts to wring every last tear from the battered, drained audience. I won’t go into the details but the timing around one particularly melodramatic scene near the end, set on a jetty, had me rolling my eyes, though I must admit that the bittersweet coda set twenty-odd years after the rest of the story got to me, and for the most part the emotional manipulation doesn’t go too far and has been set-up by those earlier, slower passages. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s certainly classy, and will cement the burgeoning reputation of its director – I really like his trio of films to date, overall – as well as doing nothing to harm the reputations of its principal actors. It looks fantastic on the big screen, sounds very good (there’s something soothing about hearing and seeing those ocean waves rolling in, even when it’s stormy) and as romances go I felt pretty invested in the characters; their love for one another rang true. Even Hannah’s relationship with a German immigrant, shown briefly on occasion in flashback, is handled deftly. Much to recommend.