The Light Between Oceans

Posted by Joel Copling on September 2, 2016


The drama of "The Light Between Oceans" hinges upon a decision whose morality is, in spite of extenuating and mitigating factors that superficially complicate that decision, so clear-cut that, by some point, the grief the audience is put through to question its rightness or wrongness feels dishonest. This review will build up to the decision without giving it away outright, although the mere acknowledgment of questions of morality might be all that one needs to know what happens at the inciting moment in the narrative. For a while, director Derek Cianfrance's screenplay (adapted from the novel by M.L. Stedman) is comprehensive in its build-up to that moment. There's such a gentleness in the way the central relationship is built and an authenticity from the actors who play them that it's hard not to get swept up.

Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), haunted by four years spent on the frontlines during World War I, volunteers his service as keeper of a lighthouse way out at sea, initially for six months while the previous keeper recovers from a bout of madness and then for three years when that recovery meets its inevitable end on the lower side of a cliff. He has no family -- or, at least, none who will miss him -- and so a life of solitude, even if only for a stretch of time, sounds like exactly the thing he needs. He meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a local businessman, when the gentleman who hired him invites him to dinner. The two are immediately drawn to each other but, due to the rules of being the keeper of a lighthouse, kept from each other by the short distance of the sea between the islet and the mainland.

During one of his stints at the mainland, they have a friendly picnic. She playfully proposes marriage to provide companionship in an isolated location; he accepts sincerely during one of their written correspondences. Their marriage is small but lovely, their first night together is an appropriately lovely union of body and spirit, and soon, they are expecting their first child. Tragedy strikes. Isabel discovers that her physiology doesn't accept the prospect of new life from its womb in the form, not of one miscarriage, but of two. Desperate with sadness and confusion that their dream of a family has been torn asunder, a seemingly cosmic event occurs: A baby floats to shore in a dinghy, accompanied by a father who has already died. Tom is set upon to report the incident in his ledger; Isabel believes it to be a form of miracle.

Which party in this marriage wins out is likely obvious to any lover or casual viewer of melodrama, but something must be said for the dishonest way in which the film moves forward from its promising first hour. The moral dilemma that ensues is not just one in which Tom and Isabel have found themselves but one in which they have decisively placed themselves. it is not fun to watch the resulting deception of everyone they know, in spite of the fact that they obviously deserve the gift of parenthood. Moral rightness must extend to every aspect of every decision: They are right in wanting a child and wrong in the way they go about procuring one. The film repeatedly establishes this, to the very edge of its becoming a sort of dramatic irony. As soon as one revelation comes to light regarding the child's mother (played by Rachel Weisz), every other development is telegraphed well in advance.

We know that the child's custody will be in question until the inevitable justice is served. We know that a death will become a question of natural or intentional causes. We know there will be a falling-out between husband and wife, as thoroughly as we know there will be a reconciliation. The film returns to the promise of its opening act with a note-perfect epilogue, capturing the passage of time and the impact any given decision will have on the far-off future when it was originally about the here and now, but it arrives too late and after too much hand-wringing to count for much. Fassbender and Vikander share such intensely believable chemistry that reports of the actors' having fallen in love in reality aren't surprising, and Alexandre Desplat's resplendent score is perfectly matched to such melodramatic material. One just wishes it was matched to a better treatment of that material.

Film Information


Michael Fassbender (Tom Sherbourne), Alicia Vikander (Isabel Graysmark), Rachel Weisz (Hannah Roennfeldt), Florence Clery (Lucy-Grace), Jack Thompson (Ralph Addicott), Thomas Unger (Bluey Smart), Gary Macdonald (Bill Graysmark), Jane Menelaus (Violet Graysmark).

Directed and written by Derek Cianfrance, based on the novel by M.L. Stedman.

Rated PG-13 (thematic material, sexual content).

132 minutes.

Released on September 2, 2016.