The Light Between Oceans (2016)

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“We’re not doing anything wrong.”

One of The Light Between Ocean’s most important shots lasts so briefly that you’d miss it if you blinked. Michael Fassbender, as dedicated and doggedly motivated as ever, stars as World War I veteran Tom. He’s troubled by his past, inwardly embroiled about the possibility of a future. The man has seen hell and wants to castigate himself from society as a penance for his sins. This brings him to the lighthouse. There he strikes the match and guides the ships, staying busy by fixing his old home. It’s then, in one of the film’s many supremely edited sequences, that we catch a quick glimpse of Tom seated before an anvil. He’s crying. The frame is beautiful, full of nuance, packed with the kind of character detail that most films rely on a narrator to provide. The Light Between Oceans ebbs in and out between the mawkish and the maudlin, but it’s the little moments like this one that play to its strengths.

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Tom uses the island as a secluded confessional of silence. Four years in the Great War have the man making home 100 miles away from the nearest living soul. Quietude should serve him well. But inland is a woman named Isabel (Alicia Vikander), and their eyes connect in the way lovers see one another; not outwardly, but totally and completely inwardly. Letters are exchanged over time, Tom returns to shore, and Isabel takes a leap of marital faith. Janus Island becomes their home and their own little world. Unbothered by outsiders and unhurried by city life. It’s the ideal situation for romantic kindling. Yet after multiple sequences charting the beauty of the waterfront and life lived far from the norm, the island’s identity changes in agreement with the couple’s condition. Two miscarriages make this islet an inescapable administer of sorrow. And then a baby’s cry is heard near the beach, sounding like trouble to Tom and ringing like church bells to Isabel.

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A boat washes ashore with a dead man and an infant. What to do? For Tom it’s simple because he’s governed by militaristic rules. Isabel carefully thinks it over, considering this not as coincidence but as destiny. And so two become three, spouses become parents, and their lie turns into a pervasive truth that spreads through town. By coincidence – or maybe destiny as the story would presume – they meet Hannah (Rachel Weisz). She’s a mere profile of a woman, mourning the passing of her husband and daughter at sea. Unbeknownst to Hannah, her loss has been to another’s gain, and interestingly enough, to decent people who find themselves meek in their time of need. The Light Between Oceans stages too long of an opening and has a postscript of an ending, but has a middle that swirls around in the gray area. No one’s absolutely right or so wrong as to be damned. Ambiguity is the film’s best attribute.

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M.L. Stedman’s novel has been done justice with this adaptation, albeit a little overlong and indulgent with the center relationship and too brief in its depiction of Hannah. The supremely talented Weisz is really just there to extend the plot and stabilize the moral code. Although, for all of the film’s flaws, Fassbender and Vikander remedy the leisurely pacing and unremarkable finale with the sort of chemistry that’s a sight to behold. How they both pull off vulnerability and strength at the same time is a thing of unmatched talent. I’d pay to see them bounce of each other again. As would I pay to see anything directed by Derek CianfranceThe Light Between Oceans is definitely his most impersonal project yet, but with great poise and precision he still drives the emotional stakes home. Cianfrance doesn’t make happy films, even if this one is his most hopeful effort to date. He’s better suited for drama, but man does he make a strong case for the resurgence of sprawling, sweeping, aching romantic traumas. As the movie suggests, sometimes in love we do all of the wrong things for all of the right reasons. That creates a vacuum-sealed bubble full of outright honesty and closely guarded deception. We get to sit there, waiting for the explosive pop that’s all too dismissive. What a buildup it is though.

“When it comes to the ocean, anything’s possible.”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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