If anyone is familiar with Derek Cianfrance’s filmography, which boasts two movies (Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines) I like to place under the genre “movies to not see on a first date,” it should come as no surprise that his latest film is fueled by some completely devastating emotions. Going in with a familiarity of Cianfrance, it’s easy to fall into a state of mind where you expect the absolute worse outcomes.
With The Light Between Oceans (based on the 2012 novel of the same name), Cianfrance’s first film in four years, the provocative director crafts his most ambitious film yet: a picturesque look at love, loss, pain and loneliness set off the coast of western Australia as the life and love of Tom (Michael Fassbender) and Isabel (Alicia Vikander) pan out amidst miscarriages, hopelessness and a fated opportunity that will eventually test their love for each other.
Returning home from WWI, Tom finds himself wanting seclusion away from death and anything that can be hurt. A position as the lighthouse keeper on a lonely island opens up and he finds great pleasure working in solitude. Graced by an encounter with Isabel, the two fall in love and marry only to have their future marred by the loss of two children mid-pregnancy, but when a baby washes up on shore, they have to decide whether or not to keep it as their own despite the chance that the mother might still be out there.
Resting firmly on the impeccable performances of Fassbender and Vikander (whose real-life relationship translates exceptionally to the screen), TLBO plods along at a pace that meanders at times. Wide shots that show the raging seas surrounding their idyllic home on the island prove to be an effective motif that tends to be overused, while unfulfilled threads could have been trimmed a little to keep the flow tighter.
For much of the movie—perhaps because I was expecting more of Blue Valentine to peak through—it felt as though there was a lot left unsaid between the two lovers. Fassbender, who is no foreigner to explosive emotions in his roles (combined with the fact that he is a returning veteran) feels almost unnaturally calm. There’s something there, and—at least for me—his Tom is always a hair away from erupting like a dormant volcano. Yet he is a good husband who shows the most growth over the film as he comes to terms with his past as a soldier while also finding something more to live for after knowing nothing but death and misery. Fassbender once again demonstrates his wide range as an actor as he deals with some truly complex emotions as he is on one side pulled towards duty and honor, while he must also care for his wife.
Vikander, who can pretty much stop a speeding train with just one glance, is marvelous to watch. At first painted like the essence of grace and nature (there is quite a bit of Malick in this film, too, I must add), her character slowly becomes much more complex. After failing twice to give birth, her intense depression injects a sense of instability—not unlike Fassbender’s—as I did not know quite how far she would go to get a child…and what she would do to keep it. Bolstering her label of “Academy Award Winner”, Vikander continues to cement herself as one of the most interesting—and talented—actresses working in film today, no doubt putting herself right at the top of this year’s Awards race.
Rounding out the meaty performances is Rachel Weisz, also delivering a quietly penetrating performance of the mother of the child who got lost at sea. She prays every night for her return—and that of her lost husband. Though some scenes with her could have been cut short, there are a few moments that leave you completely shattered thanks to Weisz’s brilliantly reserved performance.
Though it is a little long and at times repetitive, The Light Between Oceans is another worthy entry into Derek Cianfrance’s filmography. Though it does not deal with as many visceral emotions as his previous two films, there is certainly enough feels to warrant the purchase of a box of tissues before you head in to see two heavyweight actors giving it their all in what is surely going to be one of the most talked about films of the year.