MOVIE REVIEW: The Light Between Oceans

(Image courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures via


Tim Dirks, the founding writer and editor of AMC’s Filmsite, delineated the history of movie melodramas with an expansive three-part chronological report.  His elongated description of melodramatic narratives is clinically perfect and superbly fitting for approaching Derek Cianfrance’s new film “The Light Between Oceans.”  It reads:

“Melodramatic plots with heart-tugging (literally tear-jerking), emotional plots (requiring multiple hankies) usually emphasize sensational situations or crises of human emotion, failed romance or friendship, strained familial situations, tragedy, illness, loss (the death of a child or spouse), neuroses, or emotional and physical hardships within everyday life.  Victims, couples, virtuous and heroic characters or suffering protagonists (usually heroines) in melodramas are presented with tremendous social pressures, threats, repression, fears, improbable events or difficulties with friends, community, work, lovers, or family.  The melodramatic format allows the character(s) to work through their difficulties or surmount the problems with resolute endurance, sacrificial acts, and steadfast bravery.”

To interpret that simpler, one could say melodramas take preposterous human mistakes or flaws and play them for dramatic effect.  They challenge the audience to interpret how you would act, defiantly or morally, differently in the same situation.  These films do so while still compelling you watch in hope for any semblance of a happy ending.  To understand “The Light Between Oceans” is to understand melodrama.

Based on M.L. Steadman’s 2012 best-selling war fiction novel, two-time Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender stars as returning Australian World War I veteran Tom Sherbourne in 1918. Quietly morose, he still carries the emotional scarring from what he has seen in the trenches.  Tom arrives in a small western Australian village to accept a post as a lighthouse keeper alone on Janus Island, an non-populated rock 100 miles off shore that symbolically rests between the invisible edges of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.  Men have gone mad from confinement in the same position, but the withdrawn former soldier seeks such solitude.

Before he departs, Tom catches the eye and becomes smitten with the gentle Isabel Graysmark, played by reigning Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander.  For the first year, the two exchange longing love letters before reuniting and marrying on Tom’s first shore leave.  Isabel decides to join him on Janus Island for his updated three-year assignment.  The two make an idyllic newlywed paradise out of the rustic seclusion.  When they seek to start a family, their happiness is challenged by a pair of miscarriages and the ensuing feelings of defeat and depression that creep into their vitality and will.

At their lowest point, an uncanny “miracle” arrives on Janus Island.  A small dinghy washes ashore with an adult male corpse and crying infant girl aboard.  Isabel takes this as an omen and gift she refuses to return.  She is adamant that the rest of this child’s family must be lost and is heart-set on claiming the child as their own in secret.  The dutiful Tom wrestles with properly reporting this finding, but cannot stand ripping this renewed joy away from his wife.  He agrees to raise the girl as their new daughter, Lucy, completing their family and eventually healing their woes.  When years pass, the true origin of their claimed daughter and the severity of their actions emerge to shatter their falsely-created prosperity.

The themes of melodramatic journeys are meant to be arduous.  In the medium of film, the clinchers that aid in the ability to embrace and appreciate a melodrama are its tone and the acting performances.  “The Light Between Oceans” flourishes to accomplish both benchmarks.

Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander are no strangers to labels of “the next” so-and-so.  There is flattery to be compared to Daniel Day-Lewis or Ingrid Bergman, but, at some point, audiences overlook their consummate individuality.  After “The Light Between the Oceans,” you won’t be calling Michael or Alicia anyone’s “next” anymore. 

The real-life couple pours their emotions out on screen in two starkly different ways.  Vikander expresses the range across fetching vivacity to overwrought despair outwardly and passionately, in a performance comparable to her Oscar win for “The Danish Girl.”   To that end, most will expect the smoldering heartthrob Fassbender to scorch the romance with released ferocity.  By contrast and in a nearly taciturn way, the Irishman leans on nuance, completely opposite to his showy roles in “Steve Jobs” and “12 Years a Slave” and more akin to “Shame,” to quell the inner volcano through measured, furrowed physical and verbal articulations that speak little yet convey volumes. 

The two leads are captivating and extraordinary.  Their chemistry collides with Oscar winner Rachel Weisz’s role of loss that stands in opposition to the Sherbourne elation.  While her edge is softened from her recent turns in “The Lobster” and even “Youth,” Rachel’s commitment to the grief required attracts her own praise and compliment.  Two of Australia’s finest favorites, Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson, provide notable and valuable connective ties to complete the ensemble.

When it comes to the winning tone of this melodrama, the superlatives go even further.  “The Light Between Oceans” is a tremendous step in class and capability for writer/director Derek Cianfrance.  The Colorado native has been one of the most profound directors in years to paint the aura of burgeoning young love through towering performances in the domestic small-scale dramas of “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines.”  Adapting someone else’s material instead of writing his own, this film represents a shift and a challenge Cianfrance himself sought out towards a classical saga of immense natural scale that would make David Lean proud.  He does so without losing an ounce of his signature affectionate resonance or the novel’s tear-jerking power.  Assign the term “epic intimacy” to this filmmaker.

Cianfrance achieves the effect with soaring production values across every sense.  The howling wind and force of the ocean waves that can shift from serene to foreboding that wash over a beautiful Alexandre Desplat musical score will permeate your ears from the opening scene onward.  Filmed at the historic Cape Campbell Lighthouse and other surrounding areas of the scenic and remote Malborough region of New Zealand, the vistas and settings are simply sumptuous.  Talented “Macbeth” cinematographer Adam Arkapaw find beauty in desolation and absorbs every bend of light from great distances and revealed expression in proximity to frame a gorgeous film at all angles.    

The difficulty and pensiveness of movie melodramas are not for everyone.  If you morally object to act of fault perpetrated by these characters, you will check out and detach from this film.  If you are dedicated, the payoff here in “The Light Between Oceans” outweighs the genre’s innate flaws of extravagance.  Call it “awards bait” all you want.  Call it “old and slow Hollywood,” but the film backs up its pedigree with formidable poignancy.  The 2017 Oscar race starts today in sweeping fashion. 

LESSON #1: THE PROS AND CONS OF ISOLATION—The setting of “The Light Between Oceans” is part of the appeal and hardship equally.  Those that seek self-reflection to avoid others and deal with their unshared issues will certainly find that alone on a placid island 100 miles from civilization.  That is before literal and figurative storms threaten that sense of security and safety.  Not all can handle that, even with the company of a loving family.  One’s interpersonal world view can become narrow, skewed, or even lost entirely.

LESSON #2: POOR DECISIONS MADE BECAUSE OF LOVE—Circling back to the quoted description of melodramas, the “crises of human emotion” and the moral complication of this story come from contentious choice of Tom and Isabel to keep a child that is not their own without trying to find her proper home.  If they just followed what was right over the jaded confusion of self-fulfilling love, they would have saved themselves from future confrontations.

LESSON #3: THE POWER OF ENDURING LOVE—To borrow again from Dirks, the “resolute endurance, sacrificial acts, and steadfast bravery” that arise in “The Light Between Oceans” are prerequisites of the genre and necessary to the overall arc of forgiveness versus resentment.  Those actions originate here through enduring love shown in many forms, including love shared between spouses and the inseparable bonds between parents and their children that continue until the camera fades.