By: Debbie Wang
Derek Cianfrance artfully adapts M. L. Stedman’s book of the same name into a touching romantic period film starring Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander. Those two names would be enough to fill seats in the theatre, but it surely doesn’t hurt moi recognizes Cianfrance’s name from Blue Valentine and The Places Beyond the Pines.
In his newest period drama, we follow the story of war veteran, Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender), who takes a job as a lighthouse keeper off the coast of Australia. When he meets Isabel (Vikander), they find an instant connection as both have experienced immense grief – him from being a soldier in war and her from the death of a sibling. The two quickly fall in love and move to the island of the lighthouse to begin their new life together.
Having their own difficulties starting a family, it’s a blessing (and a curse) when a small boat shows up on the shore with a dead body and a baby. Isabel convinces Tom to lie about the incident on his daily reports and the two informally, and illegally, adopt the child as their own, naming her Lucy. Tom’s guilt of keeping a baby that isn’t his reaches its peak when he sees a woman, Hannah (Rachel Wiesz), kneeling by a headstone near the church. This particular headstone is for a husband and child who were lost at sea one day before they found Lucy. Feeling a sense of responsibility to their baby’s birth mother, he leaves anonymous notes for Hannah letting her know that her baby is alive and well. But she begins to have her own suspicions and starts to investigate the whereabouts of her baby.
There’s a line in the film, which is somewhat of a recurring theme, where Isabel is explaining to Tom how devastated her parents were when they lost their other child. “You are still a mother or a father even if you no longer have a child,” she states after saying that widows are people who lose a spouse, but there is no specific term for parents who lose a child. It’s an absolutely heartbreaking moment in the film, but it is at this point when the drama truly starts to build.
It’s a slow build, but the journey is so worth it. At least, up until a certain point. It’s becoming somewhat of a trend for Cianfrance for his films to have a weak third act. I thought the last part of The Places Beyond the Pines was disjointed and remember finding the end of Blue Valentine to be fine, but not great. Great is even too mediocre of a word to describe the first two-thirds of The Light Between Oceans, but that same term is much too kind for the rest of the film that follows after.
Before it takes a nosedive, The Light Between Oceans could have been a beautiful Oscar contender, playing off emotions and dramatic stories that the Academy loves. But the last third of the film, that seems to never end, is trying so hard to play into our emotions, that it is almost ineffective. It’s like if someone kept feeding you candy over and over – at some point, you’d no longer appreciate the sweetness and just get sick of eating it.
What saves this film is the lovely cinematography from Adam Arkapaw. There’s a perpetual soft glow that frames the subject that creates a sense of calm (before the storm) and the shots of the surrounding landscape are just breathtaking.
Every single frame of The Light Between Oceans could be turned into a post for a Derek Cianfrance Movie Colour Palettes Tumblr a la Wes Anderson. Add a star-studded cast (who all give strong performances) and a score from Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game), and the film should be a recipe for success. While all the individual parts were the best of the best, ultimately, Cianfrance couldn’t keep the spirit and momentum up through the final 40 minutes of the film.
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