After two stellar indie offerings (Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines), director Derek Cianfrance delivers his first project for a major studio with this week’s The Light Between Oceans. Starring Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, the film is based on M.L. Stedman’s 2012 novel of the same name, and while the source material may have offered a stirring emotional experience, Cianfrance’s adaptation isn’t quite up to the task.
After years fighting in the trenches during World War I, Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) returns home and accepts a position as a lighthouse keeper off the coast of Western Australia. He’s eager for the quiet solitude offered by the remote island of Janus Rock, but an encounter with the cheerful, affectionate Isabel (Vikander) while visiting the mainland soon finds him longing for some company. It’s not long before the two are married, and Isabel joins Tom on the island as the two begin making plans for a family. Tragedy strikes when Isabel suffers a miscarriage, a frightening situation made all the more harrowing because it takes place at the height of a brutal storm, with Tom sequestered in the lighthouse and Isabel unable to reach him.
Determined not to be conquered by misfortune, they try again, and although Isabel makes it much further into her pregnancy, they’re left with the same result, memorialized by a pair of crude wooden crosses hammered into the hillside above their home. Grief-stricken and despondent, Isabel appears to be sliding steadily toward the grasp of madness: which may be why she pleads with Tom not to report the dead body that has just washed ashore in a rowboat, or the wailing infant that accompanies it. Her refusal to be seen by a doctor means that news of her latest miscarriage hasn’t reached the mainland – so why not pass the child off as their own?
Tom reluctantly agrees to the ruse, but while Isabel settles happily into motherhood, cooing and fussing over “Lucy,” her husband is haunted by the choice they’ve made. Even the most joyous occasions find Tom wracked with guilt, and when he steps outside for a breath of fresh air after Lucy’s christening, he stumbles upon a woman (Rachel Weisz) weeping over a gravesite and realizes that she’s mourning the loss of her own daughter, who disappeared at sea with her husband. It’s one thing when the girl’s parents were both assumed dead, but the revelation that her mother is very much alive sets off a string of events that will have significant ramifications for both families.
Cianfrance, who adapted the novel for the screen, seems less interested in exploring the complicated and compelling thematic elements than he does basking in melodrama. It often feels like every directorial decision is meant to evoke a sense of melancholy, from the sweeping shots of the lighthouse against the backdrop of a colorless ocean, to the numerous close-ups of people weeping – Fassbender with his jaw clenched stoically, Vikander typically on the verge of hysterics – but very little of the emotion ever feels authentic. The performances from the three leads are serviceable enough, but The Light Between Oceans would be far more effective if it didn’t spend its bloated running time actively trying to tug at our emotions, instead of allowing us to become organically invested in its characters and narrative.