Suffering the psychological effects of WWI's French battlefields, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) returns to Australia to find peace in the isolation of the lightkeeper's job on Janus Rock. But the lively daughter of the man who hires him, Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) has other ideas and so he weds her, their remote marriage like an extended honeymoon. After Isabel suffers two miscarriages, though, her spark has gone out, and when a rowboat washes ashore carrying a dead man and crying infant, Tom goes against all his instincts to make his wife happy again in "The Light Between Oceans."
Nobility and suffering versus selfishness is at the heart of writer/director Derek Cianfrance's ("Blue Valentine," "The Place Beyond the Pines") adaptation of the M.L. Stedman novel, taken to such extremes it becomes difficult to care about the lovers whose criminal behavior causes years of heartbreak for a widowed mainlander. Fassbender and Vikander's real life romance began while making this film, and while each is fine in their roles Vikander, in particular, hasn't been given enough time to shade in the character traits that would make us sympathize with Isabel's behavior. The production is beautiful to look at but this feels like a Lifetime movie given the A-list treatment.
The story's themes are writ large, beginning with Tom's survivor's guilt. This is a man whose only intent is to live the rest of his life in work and contemplation. We're given no idea just what draws Isabel to him so forcefully (other than the fact that he's played by Michael Fassbender), as she concocts a picnic date at her family's dinner table that he's too gracious to deny. He is clearly charmed by her vivacity as they sit on a bluff overlooking Janus Rock, but when she expresses a desire to visit him there, he tells her the only woman allowed at the lighthouse is the keeper's wife. She proposes. After a brief epistolary courtship, she's ensconced in the lighthouse.
The theme of isolation versus community is most strongly felt in the ease in which the Sherbournes are able to pass off Lucy as their own. They have no witnesses, Windward Spirit skipper Ralph Addicott (Jack Thompson, "Breaker Morant") and his mate Bluey Smart (Thomas Unger, "The Water Diviner") only arriving at intervals to bring supplies. Both knew of Isabel's pregnancy, but not her second miscarriage, so there is no reason for anyone to have suspicions. But when the couple return to the mainland for Lucy's christening, Tom spies a woman (Rachel Weisz) in the graveyard and discovers she is the wife of Frank Roennfeldt (Leon Ford) and baby Grace, lost at sea. Tom's happiness has already been tinged with guilt, but now his suffering is constant.
Sacrifice in the name of love comprises "Ocean's" third act once the Sherbournes' duplicity comes to light. Tom accepts all blame and is thrown in prison while Isabel may as well rend her garments in the town square. Hannah Roennfeldt's suffering knows no bounds as we learn her husband's story while the Lucy-Grace (Florence Clery) returned to her only wants Isabel.
The conflict at the center of "Light Between the Oceans" is powerful drama to be sure, but in failing to steep us in Isabel's pain and mental state in act two, Cianfrance leaves us with an overly indulgent husband and self-centered wife in act three. Fassbender's dialed down performance meshes beautifully with Vikander's high-spiritedness until this moment, but neither recovers after it, both spiralling further into extremes. Only Weisz is believable here, a tragic widow with an open heart.
Robin did not see this film.
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