Moviegoers are so often pounded with images of action cut so quickly together it looks like a Cuisinart was used, the cinematic assault feels normal.
So, when a movie like “The Light Between Oceans” comes along with its quiet obsession with solitude and willingness to allow the camera to linger on a face, it feels like a presentation from an alien species. It’s so different than the constant swirl that comes and goes from local movie theaters that it takes time to adjust.
Director/writer Derek Cianfrance delivers endless opportunities to adjust with his story of love, loss, honor and guilt. In fact, his penchant for leaving the camera on the rugged face of his leading man, Michael Fassbender, or the equally rugged coastline of Western Australia goes to the excess. There’s linger and there’s loitering.
The film, based on the novel by M.L. Stedman✔, starts in 1918 with the arrival of war veteran Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) at the small city of Partageuse to accept what is supposed to be a temporary assignment as a lighthouse keeper. The job is demanding because of the months of solitude but Sherbourne’s looking for some quiet after years on the battlefield.
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The question is whether his acceptance of the lonesome life is a way of escaping the chaos of war or a self-inflicted punishment forced by the guilt he carries as being a war survivor. That question is the emotional river that runs through the film.
Life appears to be better when Sherbourne meets local beauty, Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), and the couple quickly wed. Sherbourne puts his angst aside long enough to find some joy with his new wife and with the potential of being a father. Two failed pregnancies leave both in an even deeper hole of depression.
Salvation seems to come in a disaster. A small boat with a dead man and a young baby girl wash to shore. Although Sherbourne wants to do his duty and report the incident, Isabel convinces him they should tell the world she didn’t lose her second child and this is the baby she birthed.
Out of love for his wife, Sherbourne goes along with the plan until guilt over what they have done consumes him.
There’s nothing wrong with a romance having a dark side. The problem is that Cianfrance delivers the continuing sorrows at such a lumbered pace and with such stoic imagery that the movie slips into the depths of melodrama. You can only stack heartbreak and hurt on an audience so long before they buckle and break.
Instead of being caught up in what should have been an endearing love story, there comes a moment deep in then film where even a small act of kindness would provide a respite from the emotional onslaught.
The structure also suffers from a shift of focus from the lighthouse couple to the child’s real mother (Rachel Weisz). Her addition to the story is so abrupt that instead of being the spark for the emotional arguments about the true definition of parenthood, the character is an interloper.
All this makes “The Light Between Oceans” a production that – despite strong performances by Fassbender and Vikander – becomes so dependent of angst and shot with such a pondering style it gets lost in an emotional fog. A few lighter moments would have helped.