“The Light Between Oceans” Movie Review


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     Director Derek Cianfrance shifts his storytelling focus to a different era than he has been accustomed to, but in doing so, he hasn’t lost his flair for the melodramatic with his new film “The Light Between Oceans”, an at times heart wrenching love story which takes place shortly after World War 1.  Cianofrance’s previous efforts include films about brooding melancholy subject matter, such as the 2010 divorce drama “Blue Valentine”, as well as the 2012 bank robbery drama “The Place Beyond the Pines”, both of which included storylines with characters who make crucial and sometimes painful decisions based on raw emotion, rather than the sensible approach of thinking it through.  “The Light Between Oceans” features characters who follow a similar path and are forced to suffer unimaginable consequences as a result.

     Based on the novel by M.L. Stedman and written for the screen by Cianfrance, the story begins with at a job interview for a position as the lone caretaker of a remote lighthouse off the coast of 1920s Western Australia.  Applying for the job is Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a soldier who recently returned from France after the Allied Powers claimed victory over Germany.  Tom is clearly a broken man who barely speaks and has the look of someone who suffers from the daily strain of the violence and death he has witnessed and longs for a future where he is free of these thoughts.  Taking a job in which he would be isolated on an island alone, which itself is a lengthy boat ride away from the mainland, would signify the behavior of someone who is deeply scarred and who may believe his life as he knows it is over.  Otherwise, why would he sign up for something that is bound to result in month after month of loneliness and plenty of time to think about the past with no positive future in sight?

     Just prior to leaving for the job, Tom has lunch with the family of the man who hired him, which includes their daughter Isabel (Alicia Vikander).  Smiles are exchanged by the two, but Tom leaves and begins his first six month watch at the lighthouse, which is referenced in the film’s title due to the extensive view providing a look at two different oceans.  When Tom is brought back and offered the job permanently, he and Isabel go on a picnic together, which results in the two writing letters to each other and a relationship begins to form.  In a conversation they have early on, Isabel realizes Tom took the job in an attempt to forget his violent past and instead asks him what he sees in his future.  Tom’s outlook struck me, as he pointed out the fact we can’t see into our future and that any thought about it is merely only what we imagine it to be.  With all Tom had been through, it didn’t appear he dreamed a lot about his future, but love has a way of changing that.

     The couple decides to get married and plans to raise a family on the lighthouse island, setting into motion a very compelling scenario that will truly test their commitment to one another.  Isabel becomes pregnant, but loses the child to a miscarriage in a difficult and emotional sequence that felt very real and is handled masterfully by Cianfrance.  After grieving their loss, the couple tries again, only to suffer the same fate.  The characters in this story, especially Tom are already emotionally torn in some way, but after the second loss of an unborn child, the film really begins to march into some of the same territory both of Cianfrance’s more notable films did as well.  That being one of not only of the emotions tied to a terrible loss, but also the aftermath where we are forced to move on with our lives, even when it seems like there may be nothing else to live for.  The middle act is not only powerful, but it also sends the story into a completely unforeseen turn that could ultimately make a bad situation worse.

     A rowing boat washes up on the shore of the lighthouse island and both Tom and Isabel rush to the beach to investigate.  In it, they find a dead man and baby girl who is still alive.  After tending to the baby, Tom intends on sending a signal home (at the time this is done via Morse code) and reporting the incident.  But Isabel has a completely different thought.  The people at home knew she was expecting, but were still unaware of the second miscarriage.  Why not take the baby as their own and tell every one it is their child?  For all of us, life has a tendency to create pivotal moments where the decision we make at the time will shape our lives going forward in both a positive and a negative way.  For Tom and Isabel, this is one of those decisions and one that is clearly being made when both of them are the most vulnerable.  It’s funny how we never seem to consider the consequences until it is too late, but for many of us these kinds of decisions just feel right at the time, don’t they?

     Fassbender has become a sort of pro in these kinds of roles, as he seemingly has the stoic look of a man who has suffered a great deal of loss in the past and wears it on his sleeve in the present.  Everyone knew Alicia Vikander would be a star the moment we laid our eyes on her in last year’s “Ex-Machina” and she only solidified that thought with her Oscar win for “The Danish Girl” earlier this year.  As an actress, she shows tremendous range and has really chosen the right roles to showcase her talents.  Cianfrance is developing as well, now showing a wider range of filmmaking after the gritty, street level feel of his previous efforts.  But the overall tone hasn’t changed at all, as his characters seem to be dealt a continuous bad hand in life and must always overcome tremendous obstacles just to gain the things most of us take for granted.  In the case of “The Light Between Oceans”, that means the opportunity to have a family and being happy.  GRADE: B+