“We’re not doing anything wrong.” – Alicia Vikander’s Isabel to Michael Fassbender’s Tom, just as they’re about to do something really, really wrong.
In the history of movies, any time anyone says “We’re not doing anything wrong,” everyone in the audience is pretty much always thinking, “Oh yes you are!”
This is one of the core problems with “The Light Between Oceans,” a gorgeous but plodding and borderline ludicrous period-piece weeper. We’re supposed to feel for Isabel and Tom and the plight they find themselves in — but THEY PUT THEMSELVES IN THAT SITUATION, and what they’ve done isn’t just criminal, it’s cruel.
We’ll talk more about that mess in a moment.
Based on the popular novel from 2012 by M.L. Stedman and adapted and directed by the gifted Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine,” “The Place Beyond the Pines”), “The Light Between Oceans” is one of those movies announcing from the get-go you’re in for some serious melodrama. At times it seems to be aiming for the Guinness Book of Records in the categories of Most Sweeping Overhead Shots of an Ocean, as well as Most Scenes Involving Voice-Over Narration of Handwritten Letters.
We open in Australia in 1918, as World War One (then known as the Great War) was coming to a close.
Michael Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a four-year combat veteran who appears numb and broken. Tom applies for the job of lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a remote post some 100 miles from the nearest town. That’ll suit him just fine.
Ah, but living in that town is one Isabel (Vikander), a beautiful and sweet and plucky gal who lost two brothers to the war and is biding her time in her parents’ home, just waiting for a Fassbender-looking guy to sweep her off her feet. (Though she’s the one who makes most of the moves early in their courtship.)
After just one semi-date, Tom and Isabel are goners. He goes back to the lighthouse, and they commence with a pen-pal romance. Before you can say, “Cue the Happiness Montage,” Tom and Isabel are married, and Isabel is with child.
We can’t delve much further into the review without some SPOILER ALERTS, so there you have it.
Isabel suffers a miscarriage, and then another. The tragedies are compounded because she’s isolated on the unforgiving Janus Rock with just her husband. (The previous lighthouse keeper went mad after his wife passed away.)
And then a dinghy washes up, and inside the dinghy there is a dead man and a baby girl who is very much alive.
Tom says they must report this to the authorities. Isabel, who has just suffered her second miscarriage, says: What if we bury the dead man, and we pretend this girl is ours?
And that’s when she tells her husband, “We’re not doing anything wrong.”
I suppose it’s possible everyone, including Isabel’s parents, will buy into the notion this quite large baby was actually born to Isabel in the lighthouse with only Tom to provide assistance. (You’d think after the first miscarriage, when Isabel was pregnant a second time there might have been some talk about her staying with her parents, in a town, with a doctor, rather than remaining with Tom on a stormy island hours from civilization.)
And I suppose the coincidences that begin to pile up in the second half of the movie could take place — at least two of them awfully convenient in terms of triggering some big-time melodrama.
But it’s a stretch.
Fassbender can be a mesmerizing screen presence — but he also can be something of a stiff, and that’s the case here. Even when his Tom is experiencing some moments of joy, he has the smile of someone who’s been told to “JUST SMILE FOR ONCE!”
Vikander is tasked with making us feel sympathetic for Isabel, even after Isabel flies off the rails. It’s the kind of role actors love, filled with opportunities for the character to be movie-star charming, and then adorably maternal, and then shattering the windows with the strength of her grief. It’s fine work — but when you’re convincing your husband to bury that dead guy and to go along with a perhaps lifelong ruse pretending you gave birth to a baby whose mother believes her child is dead, well. Sorry Isabel. Not a fan.
The best performance in the film comes from Rachel Weisz as Hannah, the daughter of the wealthy and fabulously named Septimus Potts (Bryan Brown), who had disowned her after she married a German. (Leon Ford is wonderful in a small part as Hannah’s husband.) It’s possible Hannah is that little girl’s real mother, and Weisz does a memorable job of capturing perhaps the most complex and definitely the most sympathetic character in the film.
Writer-director Cianfrance has crafted a great-looking film with prestige project written all over it, from the cast that includes Oscar winners Vikander and Weisz, and two-time Oscar nominee Fassbender; the luminous cinematography by Adam Arkapaw; and the score from Alexander Desplat, the ridiculously prolific composer (“The King’s Speech,” “Argo,” “The Danish Girl,” etc., etc.)
I’m just not sure anyone could have turned this soap opera material into anything other than a sweeping, credibility-stretching, overwrought … soap opera.
“The Light Between Oceans”
DreamWorks Pictures presents a film written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, based on the novel by M.L. Stedman. Running time: 130 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for thematic material and some sexual content). Opens Friday at local theaters.