The Light Between Oceans (2016) (Review)

Some films feel primed for one reason and one reason only - award season. As we enter said season, The Light Between Oceans is one of the first to sprint out the gate, with an adaptation of M. L. Stedman's novel of the same name. Hiring two Oscar treasures for the film whose off-screen romanced was kindled by their on-screen one, director Derek Cianfrance attempts to craft a soaring piece of film with stunning cinematography, heart-tugging narrative and sensational performances of two compelling characters promised in the marketing. He mostly succeeds - but it doesn't always feel earned. In fact, you feel a little cheated.

When Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender, X-Men; Apocalypse) returns from war and seeks a life of solitude and he is hired as a lighthouse keeper. He falls in love with a local girl, Isabel (Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl) and quickly marries her. Haunted by two miscarriages, their lives change when a boat washes onto shore, containing a baby. Struggling to decide whether to raise her as their own or alert authorities, the romantic period drama examines the morality behind their choices and decisions, as well as the consequences of ones conscience and the determination to protect those you love and remembering those you have lost.

With Fassbender and Vikander teaming up in a film, you are always certain outstanding performances and this is no less. Heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measures down primarily to the dedicated performances from the leading pair, their chemistry is undeniable and each craft compelling characters in the most devastating of circumstances. Fassbender carries a certain calmness and composure, in line with his character's refusal to let people in, while Vikander is given the film's bigger moments and sells them with such intensity and raw emotion that alone, she gives the film the heart it often struggles to fully deserve. Vikander somehow manages to make the second miscarriage feel even more heartbreaking and shocking than the first, even though you subconsciously know - from trailers, the source material or the film's own foreshadowing - that is will occur again. It is really powerful, affecting acting that should not go without at least a mention in the upcoming awards season. Rachel Weisz is another of the film's key players and manages to depict her character's struggle with both hope and despair, balancing the two inflicting emotions that reflects the conflict experienced by the audience themselves, as we head towards the conclusion. A special mention also goes to Florence Clery, the girl playing Lucy - for such a young actress, her performance feels well beyond her years and is genuinely moving; I expect to see even more of her in the next few years.

Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw happily uses the stunning scenery with such detail and care to create an exquisite picture that is as emotional as it is beautiful. Whether its the light flares, rolling tides or close-ups of the beautiful actors at the film's core, it all the more sells the love story that takes place in such a breathtaking location. Props also go to Cianfrance who directs the picture with grace as, even in the darkest moments, it is executed with style and beauty. For example, the moment in which the boat washes on to shore sees the use of shaky, hand-held camera movements, metaphorically reflecting the end of the first act and beginning of the second, as well as the translation in struggles for the characters; in this way, it is wonderfully executed and rather jarring, in contrast with the precise movement seen throughout the first act, creating a rather poetic and cinematic feel to the whole thing.

One can overlook the often melodramatic and logically-challenging narrative for its good intentions and brilliant performances, but more difficult to accept is the film's troubling runtime, pace and momentum: not only is the film about 20 minutes too long, with too much of that spent pondering and staring out into the sunset. It feels longer still by the film's inability to consider and play with different tones, often stagnating what could be a completely powerful picture with consistent emotion that eventually wears you down. By the end, where the biggest heart-tugging should probably be experienced, the emotion is at its least effective because the film played on being saccharine for too long and ruined the impact it could and should have. A lot of the emotion feels deeply manipulated and a little unearned, mainly because of an intrusive score whose efficency is undercut by how overpowering it is at moment.

The best way to describe this film is that it is like chocolate - you want it and you will enjoy it, but there comes a point where enough is enough and you want something else to displace from the syrupy-sugar. It's an enjoyable and sometimes powerful drama with a beautiful location and exceptional performances at its heart, even though its pace, momentum and bloated runtime prevent it from being the prestigious period drama it strives so hard to be. It probably won't be in Oscar-discussions (although its performances should at least be considered) but has given Disney another win outside of its animation and live-action wheelhouse (much like Queen of Katwe) and has created one of Hollywood's most powerful couples, so we can't be too disappointed.


Summary: The Light Between Oceans is beautifully-acted and gorgeously shot, but a couple of flaws prevent it from being the prestigious period drama it strives to be, and arguably should be with the talent involved.

Highlight: Beautiful performances from Fassbender and especially Vikander.