Tonight, I was excited to be able to attend an advanced screening of the new Derek Cianfrance film, The Light Between Oceans. TLBO is adapted from the best-selling novel by M.L. Stedman (which, unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, I have not yet read), and at 7pm I walked into the historic Belcourt Theatre in Nashville not really knowing what to expect. I knew that the film’s three most prominent cast members (Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz) are historically known for killin’ it on the silver screen, so if nothing else, I was intrigued. I’d heard it described as a “period piece”, which tends to evoke in me thoughts of Keira Knightley rustling around in petticoats and longing for men outside of her life’s station…but, in my opinion, a period piece this is not.
Don’t get me wrong–I love period pieces as much as, if not more than, the next person. I’d go so far as to say that I actively seek them out. I’ve chortled sophisticatedly whilst reading Pride and Prejudice, tossing my head and gaily thinking “Oh, Mr. Darcy!”; I’ve pondered the beauty of sheep on a grassy knoll, and Carey Mulligan wearing the heck out of a corset in Far From the Madding Crowd; I’ve wondered just what the hell Anna Karenina sees in that obviously-odious Count Vronksy, anyway! All this to say: as someone who enjoys period pieces heartily, I think calling The Light Between Oceans a period piece is an over-simplification that will give many movie-goers the wrong impression.
Yes, the film does take place largely in the 1920s. That being said, there is nothing even remotely F. Scott Fitzgerald about it, and flappers are nowhere to be found. Michael Fassbender does don some sexy, sexy shepherd pants, which I can only assume are the standard garb for rocky outcroppings of Western Australia in the early part of the 20th century (side note: let’s hope those come back around at some point, amirite?). That (and Rachel Weisz’s fabulous hats) aside, it’s very easy to forget that the story takes place in a vastly different time. The themes of isolation, survivalist guilt, and a mother’s love still ring extremely true today, and they dominate the plot to such an extent that I truly believe that this could be set in any time, any place.
To summarize, the story mainly focuses on two characters: Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) and Isabel Graysmark (Vikander). Tom has spent four years fighting on the Western Front in WWI, and comes home a shell of a man. The narrative does not focus specifically on his past (though we are to understand that his adolescent family life was not a merry one), nor does it focus on events during the war. All we really know is that he has come back altered, even from his pre-war, already-stoic personality: ridden with a surviving solider’s existential guilt, and devoid of joy. Upon this return, he seeks out a remote position as a lighthouse-keeper on Janus Rock– someplace quiet and challenging (100 miles from the mainland, no less!), where he can seek refuge from a world of polite society that he no longer feels he belongs to. Enter Isabel, the daughter of a prominent personage in the neighboring (if you can call it that) mainland town of Partageuse. Alicia Vikander plays Isabel, and she is such a winsome, natural beauty that it’s not at all hard to see how she could slowly infiltrate the prison of Tom’s mind. She brings him out of himself, which I know sounds like something out of a Nicholas Sparks novel. But their courtship…you just have to see it. Her thousand-watt smile, her thirst for life, her boldness, her humor. All these traits creep under Tom’s skin, and though they seem at first to be opposite to his silent ways, you begin to realize that she’s bringing out mirrored shades of his own personality that have long lain buried. They marry fairly quickly, but unlike other films where the relationship timeline goes straight from meeting each other to being married, Tom and Isabel have an almost Bronte-like quality to their relationship that I find believable despite its speed. It doesn’t feel like rushed filmmakers, it feels romantic in a sweeping, wandering-the-moors-forever-in-search-of-your-ghost kind of way that goes far beyond the romance of cheap candy and flowers. It honestly feels very much like Cathy and Heathcliff’s “whatever souls are made of, his and mine are the same”. Now, I’m aware that this is a lot of backstory to impart to a summary, but it’s extremely important to consider in the larger framework of the movie. Tom attributes every happiness of his life to his relationship with Isabel, so when a tiny infant and her dead father wash ashore of the lighthouse in a banged-up dinghy, he is at a serious moral crossroads. Isabel has suffered several miscarriages at this point, and they both long for a child of their own. He would do anything to make her happy again, and that’s essentially what the film boils down to.
Tom’s first inclination is to report the shipwrecked father and daughter to the mainland immediately, as the second great commitment of his life is to duty/honor/Doing The Right Thing. A distraught Isabel convinces him, however, to put off reporting the dinghy until they can “catch their breath” and give the poor baby some time to recuperate (read: never…NEVER!). Time passes, they both grow too fond of the baby to report her as a tragic, wayward sea-gift, and for several years they raise the child as their own. Then, at her christening on the mainland, Tom encounters the baby’s actual mother (Weisz) through a series of unforeseen-but-then-again-pretty-much-inevitable circumstances, and to go much further here would venture into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say: Tom and Isabel’s relationship is taxed to an extreme degree, and they must decide whether to give the baby up, or continue to raise her as their own, despite knowing who she really belongs to.
This movie is fairly long at 2 hours 10 minutes, and you can feel it at times. It’s by no means a perfect film, and despite loving it overall, I deducted half a star in my rating for a few small things. The reason we’re given for the father and infant being in the doomed dinghy in the first place is pretty weak…it’s vague at best and what explanation there is doesn’t really gel for me. Also, to split hairs, the fairly substantial baby that washes up in the boat is so obviously not a newborn that it feels silly that the men who run the supply boat accept her as being Isabel’s preemie…I guess crusty old sea bachelors don’t know what new babies look like? It kind of reminded me of the scene in The Choice (boo hiss) where Theresa Palmer’s dog has puppies, and they emerge from the uterus as fully-formed 12-week-olds. Anyway, I digress.
Whatever minor shortcomings it might have, The Light Between Oceans is a gorgeous, heartwrenching movie. Alexandre Desplat’s haunting musical score, the cinematography, and the acting by Fassbender, Vikander, and Weisz all come together to make for an exquisite film experience that will stay with you for quite a while. You will cry (…oh, YOU WILL CRY), but the emotions it elicits feel raw and real, and not like studio-manufactured emotional manipulation.
My fear is that this movie will be passed over by some as being “too dramatic”, but I ask that you not buy into that. Haters gon’ hate.
Do yourself a favor, and go see it. You’ll be glad you did.