Based on the best-selling novel by M.L. Stedman, “The Light Between Oceans” feels like the kind of movie that says goodbye to summer blockbusters (not that there have been many) and transitions us to the fall spectacle of dramas without blinking an eye. Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance (“The Place Beyond the Pines”), “The Light Between Oceans” is both riveting and slow, emotionally moving and slightly distant. It aims to tell a story from three perspectives, and while it doesn’t always manage to balance all three or develop the final character more properly, the film asks us to look beyond the veil and leaves us with a question: What would you have done?
In 1918, a lonely man named Tom (Michael Fassbender) arrives in Western Australia and is given the job as lighthouse keeper on an offshore and desolate island called Janus. After a very, very rushed courtship with Isabel (Alicia Vikander), the two are married. After a few years and two miscarriages, Isabel becomes a bit despondent. That is, until an unexpected arrival changes everything. A baby, whom the couple later names Lucy (played at age four by the young and adorable Florence Clery), washes up ashore in a boat with a dead man in tow.
Tom, wanting to report the man and the infant, changes his mind after seeing the immediate attachment his wife has with the child. Uneasy, he decides to leave the issue alone and the couple raise the child as their own. Four years later, they are faced with the reality of their choices when they discover that Lucy’s mother, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), is alive, well, and living on the island in the belief that her child has been lost to her.
Trying to bridge two different forms of media can backfire, and in this case, it’s easy to see that the book had more to give in the sense of character perspective. But Cianfrance, who likes to move plot developments at an almost glacial pace, benefits somewhat because of this. The film is separated into three distinct sections: the before and directly after the baby is found, the time period in which only one person knows the truth about the biological mother being alive, and the aftermath of this revelation.
Cianfrance is a big fan of moral questions and dilemmas in times of trauma and hardship. And there are a lot of questions the film poses, but one of the primary ones it never delves into is the further exploration of paternal love. Are the actions of Tom and Isabel justified? Should they have spoken up? Should a child be subjected to love by force of will and determination from any of the parents involved? All fascinating questions the film poses, and while it sets them up well enough in the first half, the second half fails to answer them, relying mostly on melodrama to get to its finale.
Michael Fassbender really sells the internal turmoil he feels throughout, as well as the happiness in being a part of this little girl’s life. Alicia Vikander is far more vocal with her emotions and direct in her aspirations for her life. After suffering two unexpected losses, her motivations are clearer. On the other hand, Rachel Weisz also gives a layered performance even though her character isn’t given as much time to develop, so the audience doesn’t gather anything but a nod of sympathy, although she sells the quiet emotion well.
“The Light Between Oceans” isn’t one of Cianfrance’s best. The emotional turmoil the characters partake in is compelling, but becomes prolonged and a bit melodramatic near the end. Several questions are raised but never significantly answered and although there are two actresses in the film, the majority of the point of view is given to Fassbender’s character, who therefore benefits the most from any potential sympathy. A dramatic and sometimes thoughtful film, it maintains a moral ambiguity throughout that, while filled with potential, doesn’t deliver on all accounts.