Tender, uneven, and overly sentimental, The Light Between Oceans is a melodramatic tearjerker buoyed by an exceptional cast; an initially moving and increasingly unbelievable tale of moral misdeeds; and a cinematic love story ultimately betrayed by its shortcomings. Handsomely shot yet narratively damaged, it’s a sincere but emotionally manipulative work that ends up wringing tears from its audience.
Tom Sherbourne, a newly-returning veteran of World War I, takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus, off the coast of Australia. He meets Isabel Graysmark and quickly marries her. The couple discover an adrift rowboat and decide to informally adopt the baby girl they rescued as their own. Upon returning to the mainland, they encounter Hannah Roennfeldt, whose own relationship to the child threatens to undo the delicate family Tom and Isabel have created.
Writer-director Derek Cianfrance seemed like the perfect fit for an adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s novel of the same name. His breakout film, Blue Valentine, was astonishingly adept at illustrating the struggle of maintaining love as time batters all against the rocks, to the point where its ending, although simple, is utterly devastating. Strangely enough, and perhaps partly due to the source material, The Light Between Oceans falls firmly on the other side of the spectrum.
Two things allow The Light Between Oceans to temporarily remain afloat despite the rocky waves threatening to capsize the whole enterprise. First is the genuine attempts of all participants, including Cianfrance, who appears ever attracted to projects about the intersection of life and love: whether the toll that ethical quandary takes on a couple or generational sin and reconciliation, as in his sophomore feature The Place Beyond the Pines.
Secondly, and more importantly, the three central actors are fiercely committed to their roles, and all three, as a brief glance at their resumes establish, are incredibly talented. Fassbender is an Oscar nominee for 12 Years a Slave (and deserving of at least one more nomination); Vikander and Weisz are already Oscar winners. Indeed, during an impromptu speech that catches Fassbender’s Tom off guard, he gives a few reflections about his experiences that deeply resonate. Similarly, two graveyard scenes involving Tom and Weisz’s Hannah are quite affecting.
Unfortunately, these brief moments merely provide a glimpse into a better movie, but alas, one that was not meant to be. These are beautiful people – Vikander’s honey-hued, angelic complexion, though frequently marred by tears, is captivating – undergoing manufactured suffering. Their characters not only engage in blatantly questionable acts, but the ethical repercussions are treated more superficially than, for example, in the Dennis Lehane adaptations Mystic River, one of Clint Eastwood’s strongest recent efforts, and Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck’s directorial debut.
It also feels curiously rushed: while romances can be implied or effectively hearkened to in a few scenes – see Ben Chaplin and Miranda Otto in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line or Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara in Spike Jonze’s Her – Tom and Isabel’s journey plateaus. Fassbender and Vikander, who fell in love on set, have undeniable chemistry, but they’re unable to communicate a wealth of shared memories in the way needed to prompt true investment. As above, the strongest aspects are whispered vocal records of letters exchanged from a distance, before they’re even together on the island.
The Light Between Oceans is heartfelt filmmaking: it will undoubtedly stir up sympathy for Tom, Isabel, and/or Hannah, and it will likely drive many of its viewers to tears. The issue is rarely do those tears feel earned. Instead, it becomes a plaintive, Nicholas Sparks-esque romantic fable that’s full of coincidences and more than a little contrived.
As with so many other films that show glimmers of potential (both on paper and on screen), The Light Between Oceans may leave one feeling partially satisfied, even compassionate for the characters’ dilemmas, but it will mostly leave you feeling shortchanged, and thinking it could have been so much more.