What can I say about The Light Between Oceans that hasn’t already been said about ennui? Watching this film is the cinematic equivalent of wading through the morass of a spiritual malaise so deep and so all-encompassing that it infects your very soul, rendering that which once gave you immense pleasure as dull and monotonous. For hours after my screening I found myself trying, and failing, to satisfy my need for stimulation until I had nothing left to do but go to bed. It’s a struggle even writing this review for fear reliving the agony of sitting through the 2 hours and 15 minutes of filmic molasses that is The Light Between Oceans, whose title I just had to double check because even that is so boring I can’t seem to commit it to memory.
Boring doesn’t necessarily need to be a synonym for bad. There are plenty of fine films made by filmmakers who’ve built their entire career on creating art out of the mundane (looking at you, Terrence Malick). That’s never a feat accomplished by writer/director Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines) here, however. Adapting his movie from the novel from Australian writer M.L. Stedman, Cianfrance seems to have confused “emotional core” with “hackneyed melodrama” in an attempt to tell this tale of love in the face of tragedy.
Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander are the saving graces in an otherwise painfully uninteresting experience. Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, veteran home from World War 1 who’s looking to hide away from the horrors of man by secluding himself from society, which he does by accepting a job as lighthouse keeper on a small island. Prior to his deployment to the island he meets the beautiful young Isabel Graysmark (Vikander) and the two fall instantly in love. After a courtship/pen pal relationship, the two get married and share a life on their own private island. Following two tragic miscarriages, the couple has resigned themselves to a childless existence until fate sends them a boat occupied by a dead man and a baby. They adopt the child as their own and, several years later, during a trip to the mainland, happen to run into the child’s birth mother (Rachel Weisz) which sets off a chain of tragic events that tests the limits of their love.
Were it not for Fassbender and Vikander, who fell in love during the 2014 shoot, there’s a good chance The Light Between Oceans would be lost at sea. As IRL lovebirds, the couple manage to find the quirks and tics of their romance in a way that’s generally believable and often sweet—even a heart as jaded as mine couldn’t help but smile when Tom calls a piano tuner to the island to fix their long out of tune upright—and the tenderness between the couple feels highly organic. Vikander specifically gives a heartfelt performance, especially during the two miscarriage scenes. The pain, the fear, the heartbreak are all presented as the actress gives an incredible, nuanced, and heart-wrenching performance. Fassbender returns this in kind, deftly playing a husband both sorrowful and protective.
Still, Cianfrance never explores the core problem of the film—the strain caused by their well-intentioned kidnapping—with any depth, sullying the admittedly powerful performances of his two stars. Everything is told to us by Cianfrance—Sherbourne has PTSD, Isabel loves her kidnapped daughter, the couple’s isolation strains them—without ever bothering to show us. This is especially true with their relationship to their adopted/kidnapped daughter Lucy (nee Grace).
Vikander does a remarkable job displaying a mother’s grief over the impending return of Lucy to her birth mother, but it never feels wholly earned. The scenes that might show the bond developing between the two are scarce, if present at all, and we know that Isabel loves her “daughter” simply because she’s always saying so to Tom. This serves as an apt metaphor for Cianfrance’s depictions of both his characters and themes overall. His actors might portray his intent well, but they seem to do this despite his hand rather than because of it.
Though Cianfrance does happen to set up some beautiful shots of his Janus Island, none of it ever manages to come together in any way remotely interesting. The film tries too hard to pull the heartstrings without ever earning that right narratively. The love may be sweet, but love tends to be that. Instead, the story piles on the melodrama in what seems a cruel attempt to elicit a reaction it doesn’t rightly deserve, like an overwrought Victorian novel that meanders through the mundane.
I can’t rightly say if this is the fault of the movie or its source material, but I find it hard to believe that a novel could become an international bestseller while neglecting to craft nuanced characters in heartbreaking situations. Tiny slivers of those ideals do shine through sporadically, but in the end The Light Between Oceans implodes under the weight of its own ambition.
The Light Between Oceans is now playing in theaters everywhere.