Israeli Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote, “Solitude is the place of purification”. Director/screenwriter Derek Cianfrance explores this theme in the film, The Light Between Oceans, about moral choice and consequences.
Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) wants to escape the memories of his time fighting in World War I and so agrees to be the lighthouse keeper on the remote island, Janus Rock, off the coast of Western Australia. His employers warn him of the difficulties of complete seclusion, but that’s exactly what the shell-shocked veteran is looking for.
Before the boat takes him away, a beautiful and lively local girl, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), invites him for a picnic. She’s intrigued by the man that shows such little emotion despite his grief, and yet seems solid, gentle. Isabel, herself morning two brothers lost in the war, asks whether they can write to each other, and their letters become the light they both need. It’s not long before Isabel proposes to Tom, and the two are married.
Despite the stark and lonely landscape they find themselves in, the couple’s love flourishes. When Isabel falls pregnant, it seems their happiness is complete. But after Isabel twice miscarries, she falls into a deep depression. For Tom, she is enough, but Isabel wants a family.
And then everything changes, almost per miracle. A rowboat washes ashore on the island, and like Moses in the basket, Tom and Isabel find a crying baby girl. In the boat is the body of a man, presumably her father. Tom immediately wants to alert the authorities, but Isabel convinces him to wait and then, demands to adopt the child. An empty crib needs to be filled; baby clothes need to be worn. Tom is torn. He wants to see Isabel happy, but what if someone is looking for the little girl. Isabel wins out and Lucy becomes their lighthouse, their secret buried with the nameless man.
But, morally dubious choices, however good their intentions, will eventually creep up on those who made them, and often will have painful and devastating consequences. Can love really survive the unforgivable?
This theme, choice, is mirrored in the island itself. The lighthouse divides two oceans, the Indian and Southern. It’s named after the two-faced Roman god, Janus, who looks to both the future and the past, and is a symbol for beginnings and endings. Lucy is the Sherbournes’ beacon of light, but a light divides even as it illuminates. The passage of time is something Cianfrance explores, as he does in other films. The lighthouse is a constant, while the Sherbournes and Lucy grow older, their lives interspersed with happy and fleeting memories: a tea party, unwrapping a present, the laughter of a child.
Epic, sweeping cinematography captures a landscape of desolate beauty, stormy skies and radiant sun, as well as the delicate expressions on faces and body language. The acting is superb, and both Fassbender and Vikander are able to perform their characters with both subtlety and force. The fire and passion of their love and pain are powerful and impressive (and perhaps it rings so true because the two fell in love while filming).
And despite this, the film was not moving in the way it should have been. The plot descends into too much melodrama, with the characters making the kind of irresponsible and downright stupid choices that one often sees in soap operas. The audience knows exactly where this is going to lead. I wanted to shout at the screen, at the clearly obvious attempts to squeeze out some tears. And in the end, I felt detached from Tom and Isabel, my empathy suspended and turned into irritation.
Derek Cianfrance has a track-record of making films that explore intimate and painful relationships (The Place Beyond the Pines and Blue Valentine). The Light Between Oceans tries to do just this and it has the makings of a great film, but the source material, the plot of the bestselling novel by M.L. Stedman, lets it down. However, it’s worth watching for the stunning cinematography and for Fassbender and Vikander’s beautiful chemistry.
Director/screenwriter: Derek Cianfrance
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
Rating: 3 out of 5