The best thing about The Light Between Oceans is that it’s old-fashioned. Derek Cianfrance veers from the tortured modernity of Blue Valentine to a historical drama with a remote, beautiful setting. The film is adaptation of an eponymous novel, unread by me, but I can see why Cianfrance was attracted to it: the characters are imperfect, decent, and deeply misunderstood.
If the film feels long, that’s by design. Its melodrama unfolds quietly, with everyone guarding their feelings until it’s too late. The performances are well-calibrated to the premise, and they’re thankless insofar that they serve the story, not the actors. Cianfrance does not dole out his empathy in equal parts, so some arcs are uneven, and yet it works because all the players try and be moral in the midst of an impossible situation.
It is 1918, and Tom (Michael Fassbender) just returned to Australia from The Great War. He is visibly disturbed, the sort who does not dare speak for fear of coming undone. His new post is at Janus, a tiny island, where he minds the lighthouse. When Tom returns back to the continent, he and Isabel (Alicia Vikander) fall in love and marry. She accompanies him to the lighthouse, where they live for several years. They desperately want a family, except she miscarries twice. Shortly after the second burial, Tom spots a boat off the coast, and there is a baby girl along with an adult man who perished. Tom and Isabel decide to raise the child as their own, but their idyllic life is cut short when they learn more about the her past.
A lot of The Light Between Oceans unfolds without dialogue, not silently. We always hear the rush of the ocean, either with crashing waves or a thrashing storm. Most of the film takes place on the island, and its austere beauty gives the film the allegorical power of a fable. Left to their own devices, Tom and Isabel create their own universe. It is an unmistakably romantic idea – who wouldn’t want to live on island with their partner, away from all the bullshit – yet Cianfrance resists the urge to let the tragedy devolve to histrionics. The miscarriages are shot with empathy: the camera never lingers on Isabel’s suffering, and Cianfrance understands that a little emotion goes a long way.
That same tact continues as the film introduces more characters, including Hannah (Rachel Weisz), the baby’s biological mother. She is in mourning, and we see just enough so we can project onto her. If the film had less confidence, it would hammer us maudlin bullshit until it felt like a Nicolas Sparks adaptation. Instead, the script only delves into the essentials so we can intuit the characters’ depth of feeling. They are all guarded and broken, yet we feel for them because the last thing they want is to be a burden. The film’s plot lasts nearly a decade, which is more than enough time for flaws to veer toward decency.
Like Blue Valentine, The Light Between Oceans is markedly from a male perspective. We always understand Tom – the script ties his decisions to wartime guilt – which means we only understand Isabel/Hannah insofar that Tom can. That is an interesting choice, at least until it proves to be a limiting one. The one-sided perspective lets Tom off the hook, while Isabel receives far less sympathy. There are moments where it is easy to dislike Isbael, to the point where Cianfrance condemns her choices. That is not exactly fair to the her, or Vikander. The film is about the tension between desire and goodness, and more objectivity is necessary for that balance.
That issue notwithstanding, The Light Between Oceans is an inviting film of slow-burning power. It is always gorgeous, even when a storm threatens the small island. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw gives the exteriors a primordial sense of beauty, while the close-ups suggest focus on the big cinematic power of small gestures. The film is ultimately about the impasse that defines Tom and Isabel’s marriage. Cianfrance shrewdly realizes it would be a mistake to resolve the conflict with surprises, and instead lets it play out inexorably. In the arc of these characters, a mistake leads to forced wisdom, and so the final moments are poignant because, finally, the ability to forgive themselves means they can see the good in others.