Writer/director Derek Cianfrance’s third feature film, The Light Between Oceans, based on the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, has similar problems to his first couple pictures, Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines. A romantic period-piece about an Australian lighthouse keeper and his wife, the film, more prestigious and expensive-looking than the others, suggests a graduation for Cianfrance from Indie humanist to purveyor of “awards-worthy” middlebrow melodrama. But The Light Between Oceans is more disappointing than its predecessors, because the director’s habitual miscalculations are now amplified on the bigger stage, resulting in a film that’s handsomer, sure, yet just as marred by inconsistency.
Cianfrance directs Michael Fassbender as a returning WWI soldier named Tom Sherbourne. He lands a job manning the lighthouse on an uninhabited island off the coast of Australia. When his contract is extended, he marries a local woman named Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who comes along to live with him in a cottage near the beach. Several months of blissful marriage go by, but then Isabel miscarries, twice, which throws her into a state of deep despair. Soon a shipwrecked rowboat washes ashore with some surprising and felicitous contents. The couple makes a questionable decision which restores their happiness, for a time. Back on land, there are consequences awaiting them, via the authorities and a wealthy man’s widowed daughter played by Rachel Weisz.
In the second half, when their misdeeds catch up with them, the film falters; but in its initial sequences, while Tom and Isabel create a home on the island, it settles into a nice rhythm of elliptical storytelling. Because they guard the island for long durations, without seeing any other living souls, Cianfrance uses montage to compress weeks, months, and even years into an impression of marital life, which feels less like time spent than time remembered. The director borrows from superior filmmakers who perfected the approach, like Terrence Malick and Alaine Resnais. Yet it’s well-suited for a narrative in which naturalistic banality, like the quotidian cyclical variance in sun and tide, juxtaposes with temporal signifiers of promise and devastation, like the growing of a belly and the planting of a grave marker.
Of all the performers, Fassbender most understands that essential struggle. Vikander, while always fetching, does a bit too much bereaved wailing for my taste; while Weisz, for the second time this year, after The Lobster, finds herself adrift in the weaker half of a film egregious in its asymmetry. Fassbender, on the other hand, makes Tom quite complicated and fascinating. Tom is a slave to his duty, as a soldier, an employee, and a husband; but at the same time, he’s haunted by what these obligations have forced him to do, by the sins he’s been required to commit, in the war, of course, but now at home. Thanks to Fassbender, that conflict lives in Tom’s every breathe, glance, or marital embrace. One must consider whether his marriage to Isabel is simply an adherence to the expectation that longterm lighthouse keepers take wives. Where does the loyal soldier end and the loving husband begin?
If you’ve seen his previous films, you know Cianfrance is an audacious structuralist, though I would argue not a successful one: Blue Valentine was missing a second act while The Place Beyond The Pines was too long by a third. Toward the end of The Light Between Oceans, Tom and Isabel find themselves the targets of a lengthy legal investigation, and the movie sinks into tedium as the characters reiterate their convictions ad nauseum. Cianfrance belies the rhythmic allure of his first section with a slog of excessive brooding and superfluous dramatics. One long scene involving a missing chid, for instance, should’ve been omitted all together. Then the coda, set thirty years later, feels shoehorned and sentimental and at odds with the tone throughout. Cianfrance, when planning his conclusion, should’ve studied Malick a little closer. Days of Heaven offers a paragon for how to wrap up such a film with swiftness and poetry.
When all is said and done, after the final tear has fallen and the last vista of the Aussie coast fades away, The Light Between Oceans leaves you with little besides a vague sense of romantic optimism. That’s problematic considering that the film obviously has larger ambitions. Its Biblical references to The Garden of Eden, with Tom and Isabel as the original sinners in a private paradise, and The Judgement of Solomon, wherein two women make maternal claims on the same child, come to little. Then again, neither Tom’s battle fatigue nor his Dostoyevsky inspired ordeal of crime and punishment help to clarify the film’s intended accomplishments. Blue Valentine was, at least in theory, about the process of falling into and then out of love, while The Place Beyond The Pines explored the heredity of masculine deportment. The Light Between Oceans, part compelling drama, part boring legal saga, surfaces as a pretentious and confounding work from a gifted but unreliable filmmaker.