Review: ‘The Light Between Oceans’ A Melodramatic Borefest

Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander star in The Light Between Oceans, directed by Derek Cianfrance, a romantic period piece that’s tedious and jejune. Cianfrance, whose best known for his work on Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines, manages to turn a very predictable and simplistic narrative into an uncomfortable two hours and two minutes that will have audiences crying tears of joy once it limps to its tepid conclusion.

The film centers around post-WWI Australia, and the veteran Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender). Sherbourne is still dealing with the post-traumatic stress of seeing all his friends die in combat and the guilt of being the only one of his pals to survive. In the beginning, he applies to be a lighthouse keeper on the remote but gorgeous island of Janus. The place is so remote that the last person to hold the post went insane. For some, this job might be torture but for Sherbourne, he embraces the isolation.

Predictably, he meets Isabel (Vikander), who just so happens to be the one girl who can see beneath the scars and tell that he’s a good person. The courtship is minimal at best, more of a polite conversation. Isabel wants to visit Tom out at Jannus, but the rules forbid it unless they are married; and with that, they give each other the nod, and we are jarringly transition to their wedding day (an entirely realistic and romantic turn of events).

The Light Between Oceans Isabel and Tom have a baby, but tragedy strikes and they lose the child. We go through an oddly placed montage of Isabel and Tom looking forlorn off into the distance until Isabel tells Tom (once again, jarringly) that she’s ready to try again. Once again, everything seems to be going well and tragedy strikes again and they lose a second child. Unnecessary.

This sends Isabel into a tailspin, but something happens. In the midst of her grief, a boat washes up on shore and in it is a dead man, who looks like he’s been at sea for weeks, and a baby, who looks like something you would see in Gerber ad – a totally realistic look for a child who’s been at sea for weeks. The film now becomes a question of morality: Should Isabel and Tom tell the mainland about this abandoned child or just pretend that the baby is their own?

In Blue Valentine, Cianfrance focused heavily on the beginning of a relationship, and the end, with a family torn apart. His brand of filmmaking is successful at shining a light on the pain and suffering of his characters. If Cianfrance had created this film in the same way he had done his others, the focus would have been about the pain a woman feels when they either lose a baby or can’t have kids. Vikander has shown an ability to tackle dark source material; she did just win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for The Danish Girl. Here, however, we are force-fed melodramatic scene after melodramatic scene of Fassbender wrestling with this moral dilemma.

How many times must we be subjected to his character staring off into the distance as he wrestles with this decision? How many times must we watch Tom sit in “painful” silence? Even after deciding to allow Isabel to keep the baby, we still are forced to endure even more wistful looks from inside the lighthouse. The movie quickly morphs from a potentially intriguing look at the pain of losing a child to boring, melodramatic hodge-podge.

Speaking of a hodge-podge, this film takes a turn for the worse when Tom and Isabel decide to head to the mainland to get their baby, Lucy, christened. While on the mainland, everything seems to be going well as they head to the church for the ceremony; then Tom notices a grieving women next to a tombstone. Now most everyone in the world would just go about their business, but not Tom. He has to see what this woman is up to and low and behold … it’s Lucy’s real mother, Hanna, played by Rachel Weisz (dramatic sounder).

So instead of shifting the narrative towards Isabel, the film fumbles some more with Tom wrestling even more with this new moral dilemma. Wash, rinse, repeat. He even goes so far as to leave a note to her real mom saying the baby is fine and being loved and not to worry – because that’s gonna make her feel better. Weisz is woefully miscast in this film. She is far from believable in the role of the grieving mother/wife. Her performance exhibited minimal pain and her Crocodile tears were transparent. She views Lucy as more of a possession than an actual child, and she lacks the pain of a person who has been longing for her daughter for four long years. In retrospect, Cianfrance would have been better off casting her in the role Isabel or not casting her at all.

By focusing way too much on the Tom narrative and introducing Hannah, a character with little believability, Cianfrance strips his film of its heart and turns it into a dull collection of melodramtic drivel. If he made strides towards balancing the story, then the film would have had some promise but, alas, this is what we are left with. I can’t say I’m shocked by this as most forgetful films are released towards the end of August. The best is yet to come.

Dewey Singleton - Film Critic
Dewey Singleton - Film Critic
I'm a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and have been doing reviews for many years. My views on film are often heard in markets such as Atlanta, Houston, and satellite radio. My wife often tolerates my obsession for all things film related and two sons are at an age now where 'Trolls' is way cooler than dad. Follow me on twitter @mrsingleton.