I got to see The Light Between Oceans under ideal conditions, in a theater, for free, and knowing absolutely nothing about it beforehand. I knew it was directed by Cianfrance, whose only previous credit I’ve seen was The Place Beyond the Pines, and I knew the stars (not Rachel Weisz though, I was actually surprised when she showed up), but otherwise I went into it completely blind which made for an interesting experience.
Tom Sherbourne (Micheal Fassbender) is veteran who takes a post keeping a lighthouse on a remote island in Australia after the first World War. We’re not given any specifics of what he went through in the war, just vague hints of the darkness inside of him. Because of this darkness, he removes himself from society, totally alone on the island. This solitude doesn’t work out for him though, as he exchanges letters with a girl from the nearby town, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), and eventually marries her. They live together peacefully on the island for a few years, until a series of miscarriages threaten Isabel’s well-being. Coincidentally, after the second miscarriage, a rowboat washes ashore with a dead man and a crying baby inside. Isabel convinces Tom to not report the rowboat, bury the man on the island, and claim the baby girl as their own. The family is happy again until they return to the town and discover the baby’s past.
Going into the film knowing none of this was a very interesting experience. For the whole first act of the film, before Isabel’s first miscarriage, the film was strangely conflictless. The film is rather leisurely paced, and with no idea where the story was going, the first act seemed to go on for quite a while. It was very different to just see a sort of free form progression of how these two lives were going, with no idea of what the rest of the film would bring. After the miscarriage, I could sort of guess all the story beats to come. As such, I almost wonder if the beginning would have worked better as a short film all to itself. But that’s not the story we’re dealing with here.
There’re no shortage of stories with parents distraught over their lack of children. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the husband and wife turn on themselves, filled with bitterness but unable to escape one another. It seems as if the child is the center of the family, and in its absence, there can only be emptiness. It’s heartbreaking to see this couple, whose relationship was filled with light and happiness, separated by the moral complications of creating their counterfeit family. Such is the nature of this film, and I think of Cianfrance’s previous effort as well, that we see the moral conflicts the characters find themselves in more clearly than we see the characters themselves. The film is great at showing the moral weight individual actions have on others.
This is more a movie about right and wrong than good and evil. All the characters are essentially good people, and I would argue that really only Isabel acts out of selfishness. But arguing how each character went wrong and why engages in a sort of spectator sport that doesn’t seem the main focus of the film. Rather we are left with the sense of how every action has a consequence, but that life might ultimately work out all right if our intentions are pure.
As previously noted, the film is constructed at a rather leisurely pace. Never does it seem to hurry to the next scene, even though it does develop a sense of urgency to the current one when it is called for. Some of the most rewarding points in the movie are its montages, which are not filled with quick cuts from image to image, but tiny moments that naturally flow into the next. These montages are employed mostly when the family is peaceful, and it’s a nice bridge to get us from one conflict to the next over long periods of time. There almost a Malickian sense of community and nature, and the natural lighting and beautiful landscapes add to that comparison. There’s no where near the amount of camera movement of his later films, making the film a bunch more relaxed experience.
If the film has a flaw, it’s in its somewhat melodramatic and predictable tendencies during the second half. This doesn’t hold back the overall impressions the film gives though, that of moral responsibility toward others, and that sense of community and nature. Though it could have gone the route of a thriller in the second half, it doesn’t, staying true to itself until the very end. Cianfrance continues to earn my respect with this new effort, even if it might not be a film I return to again and again.
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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