Overview: After suffering numerous tragedies, a lighthouse keeper and his wife find an infant adrift in the ocean and raise her as their own, until the truth threatens to tear their family apart. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Entertainment One; 2016; Rated PG-13; 132 minutes.
A History of Tragedy: Chekov’s gun is introduced within the first ten minutes of the film and immediately we brace ourselves for the ending. Director and screenwriter Derek Cianfrance has explored his share of cinematic tragedies with Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, and it’s impossible not to carry that knowledge into the theater as we prepare to be emotionally gutted by the narrative unfolding on the screen. While we wait for inevitable heartache, we grow comfortable in the love story of Tom Sherebourne (Michael Fassbender) and Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander). Their courtship is brief, defined by Tom’s quiet and post-war haunted nature, and Isabel’s exuberance and lust for life. Cianfrance isn’t particularly interested in their pre-marriage relationship, relying on a montage of exchanged letters to make their marriage seem slightly less impetuous than it is. His interest instead lies with their married life, and how the dead bodies of WWI that fill Tom’s moments of solitude provide him with a guilt-induced moral commitment, while Isabel, with her deceased siblings and series of miscarriages, steadily erodes. It’s these moments of pain that make up the best moments of the film, perhaps because they feel the most honest and punctuated by Alexandre Desplat’s melancholy score. Isabel was positioned to be Tom’s light, and for a time she is, but it’s Tom who must stand as her pillar of brightness as she folds in on herself. If marriage is compromise, then Tom is God’s compromised man in his efforts to be an all-providing husband.
Many filmmakers have a habit of treating both PTSD and postpartum depression with the care of one eagerly steering towards waves of madness. Madness is an easy escape to avoid careful character construction, and provides actors with an out that often becomes a performance of camp villainy. But Cianfrance avoids this, while the path to take the film in that route clearly exists and harkens back to the Chekov’s gun introduced earlier—the prior lighthouse keeper’s suicide and the warnings of what solitude will do to a man. But that’s a gun that never goes off. Instead Cianfrance, Fassbender, and Vikander are left with the challenge of approaching troublesome behavior and decisions from a rational mindset and thus forbidding the audience to cast unfavorable judgements upon either character. And for a film steeped in an exploration of morality, that’s far tougher than it sounds.
Janus: The island on which Tom and Isabel reside in The Light Between Oceans is named Janus, a thematic giveaway even before Tom takes the time to explain the mythology-steeped name to Isabel. The two-sided nature of film, further suggested by the lighthouse that separates two oceans, is narratively apparent. What’s more interesting is how the film’s cinematography reflects this nature of Janus. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography carefully frames and lights these two figures, with Tom often seen within context of the lighthouse, dressed in dark clothes and trying not to bend against the surge of winds. Isabel, dressed in whites and beiges, is often positioned down by the sea or near the rocks. In the most basic of lenses this could be viewed as a suggestion of Tom’s moral superiority and high-ground, but again this is not a film about casting judgement. Their positions carry greater significance when we consider that Isabel, so in tune with life and spur of the moment decisions, is closer to nature. Tom’s position near the lighthouse is defined by the structures and laws of man, and the wind continues to push him toward this despite his resistance.
When the infant arrives on a raft carried by the sea in The Light Between Oceans, we see Tom brought down to Isabel’s level. There is a yearning in him to be a father, one that could be equal to Isabel’s desire to be a mother if not for the shadow of the lighthouse. In one of the film’s most expertly framed scenes, Tom is brought to his knees as he pulls up the cross marking the grave of their second miscarried child, an act that cements his decision to give into Isabel’s desire to raise the child under the guise of it being theirs, and to shrink away from the edicts of man…at least for a time.
Crashing Against the Rocks: Cianfrance’s interest in Tom and Isabel’s parenthood throughout The Light Between Oceans is almost equal to that of his interest in their courtship. What should be the emotional crux of the film is mostly handled in montages and while we see their joy of being a mother and father, as well as Tom’s moral doubt, the film’s pacing leaves something to be desired in the third act. Plot conveniences, or rather inconveniences, are abound in this last act, particularly once the child’s birth-mother is introduced. Rachel Weisz has what is arguably the most difficult role in the film as the grieving mother and widow, Hannah Roennfeldt, who thought her daughter was lost to her forever. We empathize with her while wanting Lucy to remain with the Sherebourne’s because we’ve spent the whole film getting to know their story. Hannah is, as Isabel says, “a stranger.”
It’s at this point in the film where The Light Between Oceans could have benefitted from some of the narrative experimentation that The Place Beyond the Pines utilized so successfully. While the film may opt for an easier structural route, there’s certainly nothing easy to be found in the moral quagmire that Tom, Isabel, and Hannah find themselves in once the truth is revealed. Selfishness and selflessness define the film’s final stretch and neither drive is positioned as being wrong or correct. The Light Between Oceans doesn’t preoccupy itself with questions of what’s right and wrong, but the consequences of finite decisions and its transformative power on love. But in its hurried and then plodding course to explore these consequences, the film loses some of its sting and directorial confidence, though not enough to ensure an audience full of dry eyes by the end.
Overall: Cianfrance will still break your heart, but with The Light Between Oceans he’ll do it tenderly. This is where the primary difference of opinion will lie with this film, between those who want the blunt brutality of the indie romantic tragedy and those who long for old-fashioned Hollywood heartache, complete with a coda. Novelistic and lacking the stylistic flourish of Cianfrance’s previous work, The Light Between Oceans is “Summer Beach Reading: The Movie,” but with Vikander and Fassbender turning the pages, it’s worth getting swept up in while it lasts.
Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Entertainment One