The Light Between Oceans sings like a sad ballad. Perhaps even a lullaby. It’s a sorrowful, sometimes achingly-poetic tune, but it doesn’t quite hit the same high notes reached in Derek Cianfrance’s masterfully authentic Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. Sentimental but never quite raw or piercing, the writer-director’s latest isn’t nearly as riveting as his better works, but it remains just as lyrical. It’s not sweeping. It doesn’t soar, but it’s not quite sour either. Rather, it’s a touching, fragile and compassionately-handled effort; it doesn’t earn its full range, but it’s still filled with heart and insight.
In December 1918, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a directionless WWI veteran, accepts a lighthouse keeper position off the coast of Australia to remain paid and occupied. It’s a quiet job, but a deeply lonely one. He’s busy but left searching, until he mets Isabel (Alicia Vikander), a warm, lovely spirit living in a small, nearby coastal town. It doesn’t take long before they’re married. Once a three-month position, Tom is promoted into a three-year contact, and the newlyweds soon sail to the lighthouse to live together in seclusion. But not for long.
The newlyweds are soon expecting and dream about their family prospects. But tragedy strikes when Isabel’s womb is left barren, resulting in two heartbreaking miscarriages. Filled with grief, a gloomy, miserable day bares an unexpected miracle. Washed onto shore is a boat carrying a crying baby girl, along with a male corpse. Isabel is overwhelmed with joy, but Tom is a little more cautious. He knows they should report the boat immediately, but Isabel insists they should raise the baby themselves. Those on the island think she’s still pregnant, left unaware of their recent miscarriages. They could push the boat back into the ocean, hide the dead body and pretend the child is their own. Tom is torn with emotions, but he wants his wife to finally find happiness. Against his better judgements, he agrees to Isabel’s scheme.
A few years later, Isabel, Tom and their daughter, whom they named Lucy (Florence Clery), look like the perfect family. But their happiness is derided upon discovering Hannah (Rachel Weisz), Lucy’s widowed birth mother living with a heavy heart near Isabel’s parents. Tom knows they should return the child to her rightful mother, but Isabel won’t give away her away willfully. Heavy emotions follow not far behind.
Like Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, The Light Between Oceans is epic in scope but intimate and tender in its approach. Cianfrance is great at letting relationships breathe on-screen. He makes them feel fertile and rich before he lets the hardships of reality cut deep. Fassbender and Vikander sparked a real relationship together off-screen, just like Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling did after Cianfrance’s previous film, and it’s easy to see why. The acting heavyweights are charming, appealing and then emotionally gratifying together. Even when the film itself — based on M.L. Stedman’s 2012 novel of the same name — is sometimes mawkish like a Nicolas Sparks adaptation or, worse, a Lifetime original movie, they’re personable, relatable and sincere together. It feels real almost in spite of the material, at least for the first half.
Cianfrance’s movies are often emotionally draining, but The Light Between Oceans is especially demanding. Pacing hasn’t always been Cianfrance’s strong suit; the bumpy third act of The Place Beyond the Pines is quite easily its biggest fault. Light is 132-minutes long, but it plays like it’s 220-minutes. The narrative is lumpy, uneven and filled with starts-and-stops. I’m certainly it played better in Stedman’s novel. There’s a lot of story to unpack, and Cianfrance is afraid to let any of it touch the cutting room floor. Montages are continuous. An unnecessary epilogue seems especially egregious. Vikander, Fassbender and Weisz give everything they can give, but after a point, it becomes a numbing, repetitive and rather tedious experience.
You care for the characters and you enjoy the performances behind them, which is what makes it work, but it’s relentless. These actors cry their pretty little eyes out at seemingly every single chance, but it becomes excessive rather than moving. You’re numbed by their pain, heartbreak and suffering, and at its worst, you notice just how manipulative The Light Between Oceans can be. It’s mostly Oscar bait territory by the later half, suffice to say. It’s not made solely for awards purposes, mind you, as Cianfrance keeps its distinguished and deeply felt. But it’s not nearly as impacting as it should be, mostly because it keeps beating you over the head with its deep-seated emotions, requesting you feel pity, ache and sorrow for these characters every two minutes before you’re completely drained. Tear ducts only can produce so many tears. Emotions only run so deep. Apathy sets after a point. Melancholy is only occasionally felt in a distinctly Hollywood production like this one. Cianfrance’s touch is sometimes seen, but not nearly enough.
But it would be a sin to completely sell The Light Between Oceans short. The early 1900s production designs are divine and lush, as are the gorgeous New Zealand backdrops and haunting beautiful magic hour shots. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography is also quite lavish, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is one of his most involving in a good while. There’s a lot to like in here, just not nearly enough to love — especially by Cianfrance’s usually excellent standards. It’s a subpar film from a truly great filmmaker, but not a failure. Instead, it’s an absorbing film that doesn’t quite reach its fullest potential, finding itself hitting more than a few lovely notes before becoming hoarse and tired. It doesn’t shine as bright as Cianfrance’s better pictures, but it doesn’t leave you cold either. It’s merely acceptable, something I never thought I’d call a Cianfrance movie.