Movie Review: 'The Light Between Oceans' (2016)

The Light Between Oceans - Movie Poster, Review
Director Derek Cianfrance’s morose, and restrained adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s novel of the same name, can count several major accomplishments to its credit. It is thought-provoking, emotionally stirring, and filled with terrific performances by its cast. On the other hand, it is unevenly paced, starkly scored, frustratingly sound edited, and at times, over-directed.

“The Light Between Oceans” takes place in the early 1920s. In the aftermath of World War I, haunted hero Tom (Michael Fassbender) accepts a post as a lighthouse keeper on a distant island, off the Australian coast.

It is on the mainland that he encounters Isabel (Alicia Vikander), a lively young woman, whose life has also been marred by WWI. She lost two brothers to it, and is her parents’ last surviving child. Bonding over their shared loss of innocence, they eventually fall in love and get married.

What follows are a series of tragedies, which culminate in a fateful decision to keep a baby who washes ashore in a boat, on the lighthouse’s island. Having suffered a pair of miscarriages, Tom and Isabel justify an act that will cut through the very heart of the film, asking its audience to at first empathize, and then sympathize with their plight.

Tom and Isabel’s decision proves corrosive to others, and themselves and wrestling with what they decide provides a sounding board for debate. It is here that “The Light Between Oceans” shines the brightest, casting an illuminating spotlight on the "big little lies," humans are capable of telling each other to justify a morally, gray decision that spirals out of control.

As a character study, the movie provokes great insight into a moral dilemma that while melodramatic, speaks to the inherent laws of pity and reckless affection. The ability to say “no” when it is easier to say “yes” is only possible when one feels truly loved by the person, they are having to refuse.

The Light Between Oceans - Teaser Movie Poster
[Image by Dreamworks]
On the presentation front, “The Light Between Oceans” is directed with erratic zooms, and a special attention paid to the wilderness, which calls to mind the work of Terrence Malick. It is in this regard and several others that “The Light Between Oceans” often feels like it is frightened to do something original, which bogs down the overall quality of the film.

The story is also told in a way that causes audiences to read between the lines, and even when doing that, they find ambiguity where a clearly defined explanation would have been better served.

As a statement on prejudice, and how a mob filled with it, can create unrelenting tragedy, “The Light Between Oceans” yet again proves luminous. Without having to excessively beat its drum, it says its peace, and the result is a more searing sentiment.

“The Light Between Oceans” while uneasy in its waviness, is saved by its performances, mainly Alicia Vikander’s. At the onset, Vikander’s character recalls her role in “Testament of Youth,” only to see that be dismantled as "Oceans" goes on.

Vikander proves that despite the initial similarities, she can find the beats necessary to create an entirely new incarnation. Making her job a little easier is that the women she portrays in each film have a different relationship with the truth. Thanks to Vikander, you want to take the leap of faith that Isabel’s decision to be dishonest is not entirely sinister, rather the innocently intended, indiscretion of a broken heart.

The Light Between Oceans - Teaser Movie Poster, Review
[Image by Dreamworks]
As “The Light Between Oceans” builds towards its emotional crescendo, so do the expectations for Vikander’s performance, and she manages to transcend, even them. Vikander is not alone, Rachel Weisz, equally pulls at the heartstrings, and in a limited yet crucial role, Leon Ford makes fast work of evoking sympathy for his beyond, tragic character.

Michael Fassbender brings gravity to his characterization, however, the script requires such reserve, it is impossible for Fassbender to give Tom much of a pulse. This script choice also damages the central love story between Tom and Isabel, which never rises to the level of being a great cinematic coupling. Thanks to the exceeding skill of the actresses that play the girl at the center of the storm, all the events that send its characters drowning in their deeds to keep her, make sense.

“The Light Between Oceans” does tell a fair story, which allows both sides of the complicated situation to be seen. It also reminds us that, there are seldom any winners when bad decisions are made. This review contains the word “tragedy,” quite frequently and it is an appropriate description to use for this movie.

Tragedy envelops the entire story, and while you might go in expecting that, the film’s final minutes still hit with a surprising poignancy that leaves a lasting impression. “The Light Between Oceans” provides a beacon of which to ponder life’s most crushing themes and realities. Rating: 7/10

[Featured Image by Dreamworks]