02 October, 2016

"The Light Between Oceans" Review (***)

Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander star in "The Light Between Oceans."

Derek Cianfrance has brought us two of the most heartbreaking films in recent memory with “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines.” The writer/director’s previous works have proven him to be an auteur with an eye for realism and a nag for telling sprawling stories about complicated people in complicated situations. And while his latest, “The Light Between Oceans,” seems to be right in his wheelhouse, the film is never quite able to be much more than a gorgeous oil painting filled with award-worthy performances.

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, “The Light Between Oceans” begins by introducing us to Tom (Michael Fassbender), a hardened and all-together numb war vet who has come back to Australia in search of peace and quiet. Tom, who resides on the coast and works the lighthouse, soon meets the adorable and impossibly hopeful Isabelle, played by Alicia Vikander. Tom and Isabelle quickly fall in love and get married with dreams of raising a family together. The two spend their time picnicking and frolicking along the coast. The pink and blue horizons matched with the sheer openness of the southern Australian coastal setting are awe-inspiring. Cianfrance clearly had a desire to embrace the flaws and complications of nature while filming and the movie is better for it. The wind covers each scene like a blanket as the newlyweds prepare for their first child.

Their glee is cut short though thanks to not one, but two devastating miscarriages. Isabelle's youthful spirit is sapped and while the couple tries to come to grips with the loss of their second baby, they're interrupted by a seemingly miraculous discovery—an infant in a dingy washed up on shore. A baby wrapped in cloth and crying profusely catches Tom and Isabelle in a moment of desperation in which they both agree to raise the child as their own. And while this decision results in a blissful and joy-filled few years for the little family, it begins to weigh heavy on Tom when he discovers Hannah (Rachel Weisz), a local mother who had lost her daughter at sea just four years prior.

“The Light Between Oceans” is a film about good people making bad decisions. It’s about consequence and regret and where love fits in to all of that. The pain that these characters feel is palpable and without question, however as the film starts to wind down there is a sense of emptiness. Perhaps the extremely linear story could have benefited from being told out of order or with flashbacks. While the three leads are all fantastic, Fassbender’s Tom is a bit underwritten. There’s a coldness to his personality (or perhaps a lack of personality) that makes some of his decisions hard to understand. And while Vikander is fantastic and completely sympathetic, Weisz was the real scene-stealer. Not only was her performance subtle and heartbreaking but her character is admirable in more ways than one and serves as one of the film's few good decision-makers.

Masterful camera work and stunning imagery help to elevate the melodrama. Derek Cianfrance knows how to shoot a gorgeous film and these actors know how to sell the emotion necessary, but due to a dragged out second act and an overly quick resolution, “The Light Between Oceans” can’t quite break through into 'must-see' territory.

3 out of 5 stars.

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