The emotional, beautifully-filmed ‘The Light Between Oceans’ had me at G’day
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Written by: Derek Cianfrance, based upon the novel by M.L. Stedman
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz
“The Light Between Oceans” – “A lighthouse is not interested in who gets its light! It just gives it without thinking! Giving light is its nature.” - Mehmet Murat Ildan
In 1918, a lighthouse was probably the furthest object from Tom Sherbourne’s (Michael Fassbender) mind. Having just returned from WWI’s bloody battlefields in France, he felt numb, scarred and devoid of any light in his life and therefore, had none to give. Ironically, upon his return home, the Australian government offers Tom a 6-month job to run a lighthouse on Janus, a remote island, and his half-year stay then turns into a 3-year contract. After all of the death that he had seen and caused in Europe, solitude is exactly what – he believes - his soul needs. Thoughts of lonely isolation all change, however, when he meets a young, bright and happy woman named Isabel (Alicia Vikander) for the second time during a rare mainland visit. Tom and Isabel soon marry, she moves to the island and they begin their lives together.
Writer/director Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine” (2010), “The Place Beyond the Pines” (2012)) is a recent expert in crafting romantic relationships on the big screen, and he adapts M.L. Stedman’s novel, “The Light Between Oceans”, into a gorgeous and captivating picture. Although the mainland scenes are scenic, the time spent on Janus Rock (actually filmed in Marlborough, New Zealand) is utterly stunning and at times, will literally take your breath away. Cianfrance seemingly captures scores of never-ending sunsets and surf and the distant line that draws them together from the point of view of a proud lighthouse standing on a grassy, stony isle.
On this grassy, stony isle, he establishes loving tones between Tom and Isabel, as the newlyweds frolic, laugh and enjoy tender moments in a dreamy – but remote – location at the end of the Earth. The camera loves Fassbender and Vikander, as they easily convey Tom and Isabel’s devotion to one another. These characters love each other unconditionally, but it was Isabel’s initial persistence that helped win Tom’s heart. Tom felt that his dark years spent in the war left him emotionally damaged, but she saw the light in him, and his self-discovery to give love only strengthens his commitment to her.
Ironically, this commitment could cost Tom and Isabel everything.
His internal light also is an obvious metaphor for the lighthouse. On one particular day, April 27, the lighthouse itself does not act as a beacon, but Tom and Isabel do, and somehow, their dreams are realized when a tiny boat and its contents wash ashore. Rather than ask questions, they accept their blessings, but over time, Tom inadvertently discovers the answers to their initial (and then silent) inquiries about the boat’s origins. Rachel Weisz completes the picture’s triad of A-list actors, and her character, Hannah, stands on the other side of the figurative door that Tom and Isabel never want to face.
Although the narrative covers territory that sophisticated audiences have previously seen in different forms, Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz’s performances are completely absorbing. Fassbender’s Tom carries this undercurrent of guilt from the war but slowly buries it during his time with Isabel. In turn - with her amorous virtue - Isabel becomes his lifeline to happiness, and she is the audience’s as well, because we hope for Tom, and this troubled soul has finally found hope through her. Vikander delivers such warmth for Isabel, and during her difficult choice – in the film’s pivotal moment - also garners sympathy and understanding.
Couple the performances with an absolutely spectacular backdrop, and any thoughts of familiar themes never entered my head during the film’s entire 2 hours and 12 minutes. This emotional ride on a fictional, secluded island in the southern hemisphere truly is the most beautifully-filmed picture that I have seen so far this year, and it grabbed me within its first 10 minutes. Well, quite frankly, “The Light Between Oceans” had me at G’day. (3.5/4 stars)
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.