Movie review: Fassbender, Vikander shine in ‘The Light Between Oceans’
On film, Michael Fassbender is as intense as water is wet so what better place to situate the actor than on an island in a film called “The Light Between Oceans.”
Playing a lighthouse keeper returning from World War I numbed by its horrors, Fassbender gets a chance turn up his intensity level to volume 11.
His character, Tom Sherbourne, takes the solitary job as an opportunity to get away from it all.
The “it” could mean humanity as well as the guilt he feels over surviving a war that claimed the lives of so many others. That his predecessor descended into madness and committed suicide doesn’t seem to faze him. Once on the job, he finds solace in the routine. He’s a by-the-books guy in a job where making log entries is a daily highlight.
Then Tom meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander). Before Tom leaves for the island, they share a glance — it’s called “the look” in screenwriter parlance. Rhett Butler gives Scarlett O’Hara one of the more famous ones in “Gone with the Wind.” The “look” is traditionally followed by the “soda shop meeting” where the characters get to find things out about each other. In “Light,” this takes place during a picnic, which Isabel sets up without consulting Tom. Her boldness clearly intrigues him. The fact that Isabel is also beautiful doesn’t hurt.
When Isabel asks Tom to take her to the lighthouse, he tells her that’s against the rules — unless they were married. So Isabel proposes. Yes, she’s not bashful. You can imagine that it doesn’t take long for the high-spirited Isabel to melt away Tom’s icy veneer. They eventually do get married and move to the lighthouse where happiness comes in waves as Tom finds the love of his life.
All is well with the couple until they try to start a family. Two miscarriages later and Isabel is now the one coping with depression. Hard to blame her. An emotional rescue arrives in a dinghy where a baby is found in the arms of a dead man.
Dilemma time. Do Tom and Isabel raise the baby as their own or try to find her family? Isabel most definitely wants to act as her mother. Tom isn’t so sure this is the right thing to do. Will the by-the-books guy simply start cooking the books? Cue that 10cc hit “The Things We Do for Love.”
Happiness returns as Isabel and Tom take joy in raising the adorable girl they call Lucy (Florence Clery).
All is in well with the couple until they return to the mainland for Lucy’s christening. Outside the church Tom sees a woman, Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), at a gravestone for her husband and baby who were apparently lost at sea. Tom’s guilt returns with a flourish, posing yet another moral dilemma. Does he tell Hannah her baby is still alive or keep quiet? His actions set the dramatic ball rolling, putting Tom and Isabel’s love to the test with a nasty pass or fail component.
Based on the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, the film takes place in the fictitious town of Partageuse in western Australia (New Zealand serves as the actual location). The visuals from cinematographer Adama Arkapaw are striking and the music from Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat sets the appropriate melancholic tone with just a dash, OK, maybe two dashes of romantic resonance.
As for the meaning of the film’s title, the name “Lucy” is derived from the Latin word for “light.” Go ahead, let your imagination run wild. Hannah calls her child Grace, by the way. Not too subtle here. As for the town’s name, in French, it can be applied to someone who “shares easily.” I’m sensing some irony.
In addition to showcasing Fassbender’s talent, the film provides yet another example of why Vikander is in such demand as an actress. The Oscar winner has that versatility thing in her repertoire and she knows how to use it. Her chemistry with Fassbender provides the film with its spark. They reportedly became an “item” off screen during the shoot.
Derek Cianfrance, who directed and wrote the screenplay, has experience with troubled relationships as he demonstrated in “Blue Valentine.” This film isn’t quite as morose. In fact, expect criticism to be leveled at him for being too upbeat.
The film’s biggest problem centers around Hannah. Weisz, another Oscar winner, is a seriously talented actress but her role doesn’t give her enough opportunity to breathe. Cianfrance tries to build up her character with flashbacks but they serve more as a distraction than driving the drama forward.
Hannah almost could have starred in her own movie. Her back story finds her shunned by her father (Bryan Brown) and the community for marrying a German at a time when Germany wasn’t exactly in Australia’s good graces. She appears just as headstrong as Isabel. She will face her own moral dilemma, too, but the conflict is more touched upon than delved into effectively.
Full disclosure: I am a sucker for good romantic tales and have been known get weepy while watching them so I measure the success or failure of films like this by how emotional I get at the end. I have to admit my eyes got a little moist, but I didn’t approach full sob mode.
Anyway, I expect a few tears will be shed from viewers watching “The Light Between Oceans.” Love, sacrifice, reconciliation. It’s all here presented with panache by a top-notch cast in a gorgeous setting. Your heart would need to be a little waterlogged to not get moved a smidgen.
“The Light Between Oceans” is rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sexual content, and is 130 minutes long.
It is written and directed by Derek Cianfrance and stars Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz.