After two emotionally devastating dramas in Blue Valentine and the brilliant, multi-faceted The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance stumbles in his third and simplest effort, The Light Between Oceans. Stumbles that is, when compared to his previous efforts. The film is a work of high class and prestige, exquisitely shot and acted by Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, continuing Cianfrance's ability to stir untold passions in his stars. But whether it's the ML Stedman source material or simply Cianfrance's adaptation, there's a quiet yet steady desperation to make us feel something that the story never quite nurtures to fruition.
Set against the backdrop of post-WWI Australia, Tom (Fassbender) is a soldier who just wants to be left alone with his thoughts to process the horrors he's witnessed. When he's offered the job of lighthouse keeper to the coastal town it's a perfect fit. He'll be in isolation with a single duty; to help guide others safely home. However, his fortress of solitude is quickly compromised by the lovely and spirited Isabel (Vikander), who he meets on the first day and instantly feels a connection to. She lost brothers in the war and sees in Tom some of the same pain she harbors. This is one of those movies where people fall in love over handwritten letters, and it isn't long before Tom and Isabel are wed.
A breezy Malickian montage sweeps us through their honeymoon period, aided by a swooning score by Alexandre Desplat that takes more than a few cues from his music for The Tree of Life. Tom and Isabel's happiness is upended when she suffers one miscarriage, then another. She's devastated, becoming a fragile creature that Tom is ill-equipped emotionally to handle. When a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man's body and a screaming baby, it looks like the answer to their prayers. To keep the child and not report what they've found would be a crime, but she presses upon Tom to do exactly that. A man of loyal duty and service, he relents for a reason we can all fully understand: to see his wife happy again.
Cianfrance has always had a fondness for exploring the complex moral choices people make in unusual circumstances. But in his prior efforts he was always willing to see those choices through to a conclusion that feels genuine, no matter how dark the fallout may be. For much of the film we are passengers on this compromising journey with Tom and Isabel as they find happiness in their illegal family. We see the child, who is exceedingly cute and vibrant from the start; become an inextricable part of their lives. The film asks some pretty deep, resounding questions along the nature and resiliency of paternal love. Can a true connection between parent and child be created out of sheer force of will? And if so, how easily can it be broken?
Unfortunately, the latter half of the film does everything imaginable to not answer any of those questions or deal with the consequences of Tom and Isabel's actions. Years later they encounter Hannah (Rachel Weisz), a woman left a shambles by the disappearance of her husband and daughter at sea. To continue on living a lie would be to deprive this woman of her own daughter. But for Tom to reveal the truth it would mean destroying Isabel, taking this child away from the only family she's ever known...oh, and they would also go to jail for kidnapping or worse. The intimacy captured in tom and Isabel's joy isn't met as they wrestle with guilt over their choice. Cianfrance veers the picture into melodramatic territory, artificially raising the tension as a means of piling on tragedy. A rash, life-and-death decision made by Tom in the final act makes no sense other than to cause more grief, which the film definitely does not need.
Cianfrance continues to drawn from a deep well of compassion, which is then reflected in the performances by his cast. Nobody internalizes a burden better than Fassbender, and he's great here as the conflicted Tom. Vikander captures Isabel's wildly swinging emotional state; the highs of her joy at becoming a mother, and the desolation she feels when it all threatens to be taken away. Weisz is strong, as well, but we never get to the soul of her character, even though she is the one we should empathize with most. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw fills each scene with images of stunning beauty and raw power, in particular the fearsome threat of the raging seas. From the performances to the presentation there is much to like about The Light Between Oceans, but little that makes us want to fully embrace it.
Rating: 3 out of 5