With such raw examinations on the nature of relationships both familial and romantic under his cinematic belt, Cianfrance had cemented his status as a filmmaker to watch. The Light Between Oceans is not peak Cianfrance, but it’s somewhat effective. The film is overlong, and overstays its welcome midway through, but is often poignant and engaging. The film excels because of the strength of its performances. Fassbender, Vikander, and Weisz are all excellent. Surprisingly, so is the young child actor who plays Lucy, who ends up being one of the film’s highlights.
The Light Between Oceans is about Tom (Michael Fassbender) and Isabel (Alicia Vikander), a married couple living alone on an island named Janus where Tom tends to the lighthouse. After multiple attempts to have children fail, one day a baby washes up on shore, and Isabel begs Tom to let her keep it. Tom reluctantly agrees, and all is well until one day, he meets the child’s real mother Hannah (Rachel Weisz), and realizes that what he and Isabel have done is morally wrong.
Two years ago, I saw Susanne Bier’s A Second Chance, which dealt with similar subject matter: mother loses child, father finds replacement child, mother becomes obsessed with new child and refuses to let go of it, even when the true parents come knocking. That movie really pushed the audience to question their own responses to the morality of the situation In it, the father is a cop, and the parents of the child he kidnaps are drug addicts who neglect this baby to the point of it being covered in its own feces. When the father steals the baby for his own wife’s sanity, the film asks, is it morally acceptable to us because the real parents were neglecting it?
Light Between Oceans deals offers no such villainy. The film is a matter of chance: the reason the baby washes up on Tom and Isabel’s shore in the first place is a bit convoluted. But the point is: as chance would have it, a baby has come to them, alive. Since the father is dead, the moral question seems irrelevant. During the montages of Tom and Isabel raising baby Lucy, the joy and genuine happiness of this life is palpable. It’s one of the best sequences in the film, and Cianfrance, Vikander, Fassbender must all be given due credit, along with composer Alexandre Desplat.
But Hannah is not a villain, or someone we can begrudge. That could either be seen as a strength or a weakness. She does nothing to deserve the baby being taken away from her. At the same time, given how young the child was when it disappeared, and the fact that we never truly get a proper look at what Hannah’s life was like with this baby before it was lost, would the returning of the baby elicit any happiness from us? Likely not.
There’s a lot to like here. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography, while nothing near his masterpiece work on Macbeth, is gorgeous. During the first bit of the film, I felt that there was a secondary, ominous character looming in on this story: the island Janus itself. But after one too many sweeping helicopter shots of boats coming up to the island, it stops feeling like an entity and more like a visual boasting point.
Some scenes are downright unsettling and heartbreaking. Vikander plays grief incredibly well, as witnessed in Testament of Youth, but here the light actually seems to go out in her eyes when she’s grieving. The scene in which Isabel goes out into a storm to find Tom made my stomach turn. It’s horrifying, and well constructed. Cianfrance plays with the duality of the moment well. He balances the raging storm outside with Tom’s isolated peace inside the lighthouse. It would be a beautiful moment, if it wasn’t so terrifying.
Despite this, the film feels inexplicably drawn out and tiring. There are simply too many scenes that probably could have been excised. Cianfrance has said he is obsessed with documenting the passage of time, but the manner in which he focuses on the most minute details of the characters’ lives in this film is overzealous. At several points, I kept wondering how long it would be until the film was over, and how we would get there. When the film finally reaches its denouement, it ends with a whisper, and almost feels like a bit of a letdown.
The film appears stuck between its meditative nature and its high-drama plot line. The result feels a bit muddled, a bit stilted. I wonder how much of this was because of Cianfrance’s sensibilities clashing with Disney, and how much of it was his own decision. Despite the great performances, beautiful cinematography, and wonderful score, I would likely not revisit The Light Between Oceans again due to its sheer length, but it’s an interesting journey to take nonetheless, and keeps me interested in what Cianfrance has up his sleeve for next time.