FROM the director of Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines comes The Light Between Oceans, a thought-provoking piece headlined by Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander that suggests potential but ends too plain for its own good.
Following the end of World War One, former solider Tom Shelbourne (Fassbender) takes a post to look after a lighthouse on the Australian coast for an initial short period, eventually extended to three years. Before he ventures to his job, he is introduced to a local family, which includes Isabel (Vikander) who he later marries.
As the couple adjust to life on the island, the couple make plans for a family, which is tragically cut short by two miscarriages. Shortly after the second loss, a boat washes up on the island with a dead man and a crying baby inside. After much thought, Isabel persuades a reluctant Tom to bury the father, adopt the baby and keep silent to others, pretending the second miscarriage never happened.
Years pass but eventually Tom learns that the baby’s mother (Rachel Weisz) is alive and has spent all that time grieving for the loss of a baby she has no idea is still alive. But with life secure as it is, Tom faces an agonising decision over whether to remain silent for the sake of Isabel or confess for the sake of the mother, knowing of the implications either choice brings.
Derek Cianfrace has the task of adapting this from the 2012 novel and in the process has recruited solid lead actors like Fassbender and Vikander, both coming off successful performances in Steve Jobs and The Danish Girl. Having last worked on Pines, clearly the best American film from the last five years, one would think with his resume and the cast he would have no difficulty with pleasing with this piece.
Unfortunately, that is what the piece feels like, given that this stretches to as far it can go, even at the hands of a fine director like Cianfrace.
By looking at the first act, one does feel that it does not get off perfectly, given its standard use of characterisation with the typical boy-meets-girl narrative which plays as too soppy for the talents of the two leads. Not even the sights of landscape on the Australian coast rescue the film and what the film is lacking is a Malick-esque visualisation that could have made this a treat for the eyes.
In fact, one thinks having Malick as director would have given the edge that a film of this inevitable standard requires.
Both the lead actors do no wrong and given that they are a couple in real life, it suggests there is a genuine feel with what we see.
Vikander occasionally reminds people why she is one of the more superior actresses around, with a particular scene which can’t be mentioned for spoiling, that keeps us watching knowing that the acting is what is worth seeing for. Her scenes where she undergoes the trauma of losing not one but two babies also deliver a respectable use of emotion which she has to be given plaudits for, more than anyone else in the film.
The same can also be said for Weisz who is very much a welcome part to the film due to its moral circumstances. We know deep down where the child belongs but Weisz and Vikander’s performances create enough emotion that it is inevitable that viewers will pick sides.
Fassbender, often the best actor in any film he stars in, is watchable but in this case is upstaged by his female co-stars who out-act him each step of the way. It doesn’t help that the first part of the film pretty much relies on him where all he is given is instructions that don’t make a performance that interesting and stays that way for a while. His reaction when he learns of the truth of the baby’s past is respectable but the less we see of that, the more we see of a better Vikander and Weisz, making him underused.
Personally, one would side with Weisz’s character for the moral argument, yet Tom and Isabel who have raised this child create a situation where one can’t bear to see their suffering, in spite of what is right. Knowing that one side will lose keeps us on our toes for the second half, especially when the film enters an unexpected phase later on that examines loyalties and queries what is deserving and what not.
The feeling as a whole is that our time has not been invested significantly given our expectations and a film like this requires more than just good acting. It also requires a distinctive direction and a feeling of transfixion which it struggles to achieve from the outset. Cianfrace has made a slight misstep here, yet one believes he will bounce back as the past has shown he works best making original films rather than adapting.
There is a bit to like about the film but given the cast and director, The Light Between Oceans fails to ignite enough originality and memorability to stand out as a solid piece, especially in the run-up to awards season.