Culver City Observer -

MOVIE REVIEW: The Light Between Oceans


September 15, 2016

There is more than light between oceans in this latest film from writer/director Derek Cianfrance. There are tears, lots and lots of tears, and the tidal swirling of emotions both on screen and in the audience as Cianfrance pulls on every heartstring known to mankind and then some, with this adaptation of Australian author M.L. Stedman's 2010 bestseller. The richness of the story swells and surges to life thanks not only to exquisitely strong and impressive visuals, but complex enigmatic characters played with strength and heart courtesy of Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander.

Tom Sherbourne is a young Australian ex-serviceman now suffering with the psychological scars of his four-year stint on the Western Front during the war. Closed off and introverted, he seeks much needed solitude and quiet as he tries to come to grips with the horrors he witnessed and what he did during the war; his survivor's guilt. Filling his needs perfectly is a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Island, so named for the god who in times of Ancient Rome oversaw beginnings, endings, gates, transitions, time, doorways and passages, and was depicted with two faces as he looks to the past and to the future. Embraced by the community who oversee Janus Island and its oceanic gateway to their little harbor, and also where the Indian Ocean and Great Southern Ocean merge, he is a welcome sight indeed given the problems prior lightkeepers have had in dealing with the solitude of being on the island alone for months on end, with a supply ship a rare sight and "shore leave" still rarer. Communication is by Morse Code. One of those locals taking a fancy to Tom is Isabel Graysmark, herself alone and grieving the loss of her brothers in the war.

Immediately taken with the handsome single man, Isabel strikes up a correspondence with him. Slowly Tom goes beyond the bounds of mere friends and grows to love Isabel, finally marrying her and bringing her to his island paradise. And a paradise it is, complete with vegetable garden, goats, chickens, and a beautiful little home complete with sheer kitchen curtains and flowers on the window sill. Now ensconced in his job with no desire to ever relinquish his post (and given the meticulous nature of his work, the town doesn't want him to either), Tom and Isabel know this is their home and always will be. The only thing that could make their world more idyllic would be a child, something Isabel desperately craves.

But the gods have not smiled on Tom and Isabel. Suffering miscarriages and stillbirths, Isabel grows closed and heartbroken despite Tom's attempts to warm her heart. Isabel is, in effect, regressing into a psychological state akin to that of Tom when he first came to the island a broken man. Then out of the blue, from the light between the oceans, a miracle comes into view. A rowboat washes up on shore. And the cries of a baby are heard loud and long.

There is a dead man in the boat with the baby. Obviously the baby's father. Tom wants to, must, report the situation to the mainland. Isabel begs him not to. This is the answer to her prayers. This baby can be theirs. A gift from the gods, from the sea. Falling victim to his own love for Isabel, and no witnesses but for an occasional supply drop by Windward Spirit captain Ralph Addicott and his first mate Bluey Smart, both of whom knew of Isabel's most recent pregnancy and that she was due any day, Tom reluctantly agrees to her plan, burying the man's body and taking in the baby, now named Lucy, as his own. But in so doing, Tom violates his own moral code and work ethic, and is now forced to live with his own guilty conscience. As time passes, however, the guilt eases as Lucy's sunny smile brightens every day as she becomes the apple of Tom's eye.

On returning to the mainland for Lucy's christening, however, the past comes back to haunt them when Tom sees a woman grieving in the church graveyard. Hannah Roennfeldt mourns for her husband and baby daughter, both lost at sea. As Tom learns of Hannah's story, he realizes that Lucy is really Hannah's daughter, Grace, and the man he buried is her husband Frank. His joy over the past months and years since Lucy came into their lives is now tainted, with Tom's guilt becoming constant, overriding any happiness he has found.

Never having given up searching for her daughter and husband, and with Hannah's father being the richest man in the region, rewards are still offered for any information leading to the whereabouts or disposition of Grace and Frank; something that doesn't escape the eye of Bluey Smart.

As the truth comes out, and duplicities are revealed, one requires the wisdom of Solomon for the choices that must be made and how events will unfold, knowing full well that the future is now changed for all.

Michael Fassbender is hypnotic. With minimal dialogue, his eyes speak the emotion within Tom. We see solemnity and quiet transform into laughter and joy with the love of Vikander's Isabel and ultimately, completeness and an almost emotional whole with Lucy, the latter which then cracks due to the burden of his guilt when he realizes Hannah is Lucy's mother. Fassbender is the heart and soul of the film. Alicia Vikander is effective as Isabel but not as compelling as Fassbender, but for where Isabel excels at emotional manipulation. Vikander goes for the jugular with histrionics, playing to the soul Fassbender brings to Tom. And like her female counterpart, Rachel Weisz, is beyond effective in the third act with explosive selfishness.

Problematic is Rachel Weisz who portrays Hannah with an ugly selfish heart that, while setting the stage for the ultimate confrontation between Hannah and Isabel and the battle for Lucy, falls flat. Her emotional beats are never convincing and feel forced. And she has absolutely no chemistry with little Florence Clery who plays Lucy. On the other hand, the chemistry between Fassbender and Florence Clery is off the charts.

A wonderful surprise is Bryan Brown who, like his character Jack Thompson (Hannah's father), provides the wisdom of age and a life lived, and perhaps a bit of Solomon.

I am beyond impressed with Derek Cianfrance's adaptation of the novel, in terms of both the script and visuals. With his only writing/directing his own original works previously, I had some trepidation going into THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS. I need not have worried. The layering of every character is impeccable. As with the god Janus, each character has more than one face, shall we say, and we see it all unfold through keenly sensitive visuals and performances. Where he truly excels with the storytelling is in making Tom metaphorically synonymous with Janus Island from a visual and emotional standpoint.

The third act gets a bit muddied, however, when Weisz' Hannah is having somewhat of a "come to Jesus" moment praying for Lucy-Grace to be found after she has run away on the mainland trying to find her way across the ocean to Janus Island. "I'll think of her and put her first." And that's where the story falters given everything we have seen unfold. The Solomonic choices that play out belie "best" for the child. It's one of the third act problems in that it's a bit roughly drawn given we don't have any supporting unselfish backstory on the part of Hannah. Having said that, naysayers might counter than Isabel was also selfish when she kept Lucy as a foundling infant, however, the love was there from the moment she laid eyes on the child. Never does Vikander's performance cause you to feel she views the child as a "possession" which is what Weisz emotes.

Within the story construct, Cianfrance latches on to the unspoken battle of who loves more, and then sets the stage with dialogue, settings and visuals that support each character's argument. It's a wonderful dynamic to watch unfold. Also key is that in adapting, as if almost a second sight of sense, he knew where to expand on the novel and where to trim. A delicate waltz expertly performed. And his visual metaphor, particularly with Tom and the island with the sea and storms, is enthralling.

The visuals are spectacular. I'm ready to move to Janus Island. As we see in THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, it is a paradise of solitude, reflection and joy. Already a fan of cinematographer Adam Arkapaw's work thanks to "McFarland USA", here he surpasses his prior works not only with the ocean vistas and sunsets, but the natural light and the lightness of lensing on the island - the sand, the tall sea grass blowing in the breeze, the crisp white of clothes on a clothes line. Interiors of Tom's little island house are warm with soft light. That window in the kitchen is perfectly placed for natural lighting. Countering the beauty of Janus is the mainland which is always a bit grayer, framing is more rigid and in Isabel's family home, thanks to Karen Murphy's production design, there is a darker tone thanks to dark woods, compounded by dimmer light casting metaphoric shadows. Looking at the home, one instantly knows why Isabel wants to leave as the only light comes from her little writing table at the window when she writes to Tom on the island, something Arkapaw always lenses with a soft sunny warmth through the sheer curtains. Arkapaw's hat is definitely in the Oscar ring for his work here.

Kudos to the sound design and editing team of THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS. From the cry of a baby against ocean winds, to the softness of leaves blowing in the wind and tall sandy sea grass wafting in a gentle breeze, to the unmistakable sound of sand being blown against wood or walked on and the pounding of torrential rains or the rolling of a gentle surf, the design is beautiful with nuanced clarity.

And don't be surprised to hear Alexandre Desplat's name announced for Best Original Score contender come Academy Award nominations morning. Haunting and beauteous, flowing like the tides of the ocean.

A visual and emotional examination of sacrifice and suffering, love and loss, there is so much unspoken detail that Derek Cianfrance has brought to play with THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS that truly make this his best work to date.

Written and Directed by Derek Cianfrance adapted from the novel by M.L. Stedman.

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Bryan Brown


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