Director: Derek Cianfrance
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery, Jack Thompson, Thomas Unger
Runtime: 2 hrs 13 mins
Rating: M18 (Sexual Scene)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 19 January 2017
Synopsis: "The Light Between Oceans," an international best-seller, takes place on a remote Australian island in the years following World War I, where a lighthouse keeper and his wife are faced with a moral dilemma when a boat washes ashore with a dead man and a two-month-old infant. When they decide to raise the child as their own, the consequences of their choice are devastating.
‘The Light Between Oceans’ wraps an intriguing moral dilemma within a moving love story, and it is ultimately the former which distinguishes the latter. Adapted from M.L. Stedman’s 2012 novel by iconoclastic writer/ director Derek Cianfrance, it circles around the childless couple Tom and Isabel Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander respectively), living out on the remote island of Janus Rock where they tend the majestic lighthouse providing safe passage to merchant ships. Two tragic miscarriages later, the couple finds a dinghy washed ashore containing a dead man and a very much alive newborn. Should Tom do the right thing and report his discovery as per regulation? Or should he listen to Isabel’s pleas to keep the child and raise her as their own? And even better, should their knowledge of the child’s other surviving biological parent affect their decision?
Key to that dilemma is understanding how it could have arose in the first place, so Cianfrance spends a good half-hour developing the romance between Tom and Isabel. Taciturn and withdrawn when he first arrives in a coastal town to replace the current convalescing light-keeper, the World War I-vet Tom is taken by the spirited Isabel, and it is she who renews his sense of purpose and joy in life. In time, he takes her as his wife, and the couple retreat to the island for their extended honeymoon. Their fierce yet tender love is clearly evident here, much to the credit belonging to Fassbender and Vikander, whose chemistry (which eventually continued off-screen) translates into commitment and feeling that makes you believe not just in their individual circumstances but also in the bond that binds them intimately and passionately. That bond also makes their disappointment at being unable to have children twice in a row felt keenly, a profound sadness that some married couples will no doubt be able to fully empathise with.
Because of that, it is not so hard to imagine why Isabel would instinctively decide to keep the child she will come to name Lucy, or why Tom would agree to a proposition he as a dutiful individual would naturally be personally uncomfortable with. That tension however only comes to the fore when Lucy grows into an adorable girl of 4 (at this time played by Florence Clery), at which point the movie takes a dramatic change in tone. Without saying too much, that transformation comes with the introduction of the grief-stricken widow Hannah Potts (Rachel Weisz), whose own backstory reveals her fair share of war scars that unsurprisingly arouses Tom’s sympathies and magnifies the moral quandary he has been in since adopting Lucy as his own. Weisz’s entry also turns the second half of the film into a three-hander, and the compulsively watchable actress radiates steeliness and fragility in a performance that will captivate you as much as Fassbender and Vikander (separately and together) does.
It is perhaps no surprise then that the trio elevate the unapologetically weepy melodrama, which plays yet again to Cianfrance’s fascination with combustible love. His earlier ‘Blue Valentine’ and ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ were much rawer in their emotions and a lot less straightforward, but ‘The Light Between Oceans’ operates on similar themes of love, duty and fate, pondering the lengths to which one person would go to for another even at the expense of himself or herself. Not surprisingly too, Cianfrance is here inspired by Thomas Hardy, most evident in how he uses stormy vistas as metaphors for the tempest of emotions swirling around his characters. At slightly over two hours, there is no doubt he does not rush things, but his heavy-handedness, particularly in trying to tug at your heartstrings during the film’s dramatic moments, does get a little overbearing.
Nevertheless, this is still a handsome period production of many pleasures – from composer Alexandre Desplat’s lush swirling score to cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s beautiful widescreen lensing of the Australia and New Zealand coast where this was filmed. Just as well too – Fassbender and Vikander are beautiful to behold as a couple, one with old-fashioned male stoicism and the other all youthful willfulness as his wife. But beyond just physical beauty, there is genuine emotional depth to their acting as well as their circumstances, which also makes their moral conundrum later on undeniably effective despite the obvious manipulations. It is this empathy for Tom, Isabel and, later on, Hannah that is the film’s light – and like the titular reference to the beacon’s location at the geographic point where the Indian and Pacific Ocean meet, positions it between contrivance and authenticity. Bring your hankies if you need to, this is a weepie we guarantee you.
(Heavy-handed yet effective, this period romance weepie that wraps an intriguing moral dilemma within shines as a three-hander with Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz’s emotionally illuminating performances)
Review by Gabriel Chong