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 V.25 No.35 | September 1 - 7, 2016 

Film Review

The Light Between Oceans

Tragedy-tinged historical romance floods the ocean with tears

The Light Between Oceans
“There is no way this is gonna come back to bite us in the ass.”

The Light Between Oceans (2016)

Directed by Derek Cianfrance

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz

As the swallows’ return to San Juan Capistrano signals the beginning of spring, so too does the first serious Oscar drama hitting theaters presage the end of the summer movie season. The Light Between Oceans is just such a bellwether. Based on M. L. Stedman’s sweeping literary weeper, it’s a weighty historical drama that marks a leap to highbrow legitimacy for edgy, indie writer-director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines).

Serious/sexy Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, X-Men: First Class, Prometheus) stars as Tom Sherbourne, a shell-shocked World War I vet who seeks some peace and quiet by volunteering to serve as an interim lighthouse keeper on a tiny, wind-lashed hunk of rock off the coast of Australia. Though isolated from his fellow man by choice and temperament, Tom finds time to correspond with young Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander from Ex Machina and The Danish Girl), a lonely local lass at a nearby coastal town. (There’s no romance like epistolary romance, am I right bibliophiles?) After a year or so of polite, 1918-style sexting, Isabel—forward-thinking and firmly convinced of what she wants—proposes marriage. Tom—feeling the dull roar of war fading in his brain—agrees. Before long the happy newlyweds are setting up house somewhere between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

The Light Between Oceans is nothing if not patient in its storytelling. As the years tick by, Tom and Isabel attempt to start a family. But a series of tragic miscarriages leaves Isabel even more emotionally traumatized than her ex-soldier husband. Though it touches only lightly on the subject, it’s clear that both Tom and Isabel are mentally shaken by life events. They’re also incapable—in this proto-psychoanalytical, pre-PTSD world—of expressing their inner feelings. That’s just not done in polite society of the Commonwealth. And so the two suffer in stoic silence (with occasional, dewy-eyed walks on a stormy beach).

he Light Between Oceans is obviously one of those highly literate, early fall, Oscar bait historical dramas. Those who consumed Stedman’s 2012 novel may decide the source material was richer and more detailed. (Hey, books almost always are.) But the film adaptation stands out strongly in a year that’s had plenty of box office sizzle, but little substance.

One fateful day, however, a small boat washes up on the shore of the tiny island on which Tom and Isabel dwell. On board is the dead body of a young man and a squalling, newborn baby. Isabel immediately views this miracle as aimed directly at her. Surely fate has sent this child to her. Tom, on the other hand, believes he has a duty to report this nautical mishap. Also, he’s more than a little aware that this child probably has relatives somewhere on the mainland. But poor, brokenhearted Isabel’s pleas sway her devoted husband. The couple make a very selfish decision and wrap it thick in good intentions. Undoubtedly they’ll raise this little girl—whom they dub Lucy—in a loving environment. Quite possibly they’re rescuing her from a life inside an orphanage. Plus, Isabel was due to have a child soon anyway. Who’s to know that this isn’t their biological daughter? No points will be awarded for guessing this is going to turn out very badly for all involved.

The Light Between Oceans is obviously one of those highly literate, early fall, Oscar bait historical dramas. Those who consumed Stedman’s 2012 novel may decide the source material was richer and more detailed. (Hey, books almost always are.) But the film adaptation stands out strongly in a year that’s had plenty of box office sizzle, but little substance. This is patient, grown-up character drama, and the excellent leads have plenty of time (two hours plus) to mull over their roles. Special praise is reserved for little Florence Clery, who portrays 4-year-old Lucy with an uninstructed realism. As in Cianfrance’s 2010 outing Blue Valentine, the director (who cut his teeth on documentaries) assembles an incredibly naturalistic trio of mother, father and daughter and steps back, allowing the actors to simply live in the moment.

On screen the film looks gorgeous, with the alternately gloomy/luminous palette of a Turner seascape. The minor-key score of eight-time Oscar-nominated composer Alexandre Desplat (Girl With a Pearl Earring, Syriana, The Queen. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The King’s Speech, The Tree of Life, The Danish Girl) is there to remind us that this is a Serious and Important film. Like the book before it, there’s a certain predictability (inevitability?) to the events as they unfold. But that probably doesn’t limit the number of hankies required as the end credits scroll. Self-consciously, shamelessly hand-tooled from all the elements necessary for a lush historical tragedy, The Light Between Oceans nonetheless earns the salt of your tears.

The Light Between Oceans

Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) writes and directs this weepy adaptation of M.L. Stedman's historical romance/tragedy. Michael Fassbender is a shell-shocked World War I veteran who takes a job manning a remote Australian lighthouse. Eventually, he marries a headstrong local lass (Alicia Vikander), but the couple suffer through a string of awful miscarriages. One fateful day, a newborn baby washes up on the shore of their rocky little island. Despite their better judgment, the couple decide to pass the kid off as their own. Yeah, this isn't going to end well. This is as gorgeous and gloomy as a Turner seascape, and the actors give well-measured performances in what amounts to a patient, literate, adult-oriented character study. 132 minutes PG-13.
Movies 8 Fri-Thu 11:40am, 3:00, 6:20, 9:30
Movies West Fri-Thu 12:40, 3:45, 6:50, 9:55



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