Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
World War I veteran Tom (Fassbender) and his wife Isabel (Vikander) live on a remote lighthouse off the shore of Australia, they are both desperate for a baby, but tragically both pregnancies end in miscarriage. However, when a rowboat with a dead man and a live baby washes up on shore, they keep the baby and declare it as their own, while burying the man. However, several years later the couple meet the child’s biological mother, and are forced to make a decision that will change all their lives forever.
Admittedly, everything about The Light Between Oceans from the posters, to the trailer, to even the title simply suggests ‘textbook whimsical melodrama’. The only element that suggests this may be more than that is the director; with Blue Valentine & The Place Beyond the Pines Derek Cianfrance put together two very different but equally engrossing films. Particularly memorable was Blue Valentine, which had a real hard edge to it which produced a deeply engrossing and at times emotionally devastating film.
Well, though Cianfrance has once again certainly demonstrated a superb visual eye and ability to get great performances from his actors, alas The Light Between the Oceans has no edge to it whatsoever. This is a film that firmly plants itself in the middle of the road from the off and never even attempts to veer off it as it diligently goes through its textbook tick-box narrative.
Not only does the film just descend into contrivance and cliché, there is absolutely no substance underneath it, making the whole thing extremely forgettable. This is a real disappointment and waste, as The Light Between Oceans does potentially have at its centre a very powerful story that could have been far more emotionally engaging and examined some deeply emotive themes if all involved had decided to actually take a few risks.
Instead what we have is a watchable, but very forgettable and hollow melodrama that often feels like a spreadsheet, and a cynical one at that. As the narrative clunks along at its intentionally slow pace it ticks off each point on its tick list with unquestionable diligence, as we get to each plot point that we already knew would happen it is very difficult to actually care about the characters, as every supposedly emotional moment just feels painfully forced and contrived. Once all the predictable moments have happened, there is still a third of the film left, and the final third is even worse than the two that preceded it.
The first two thirds are clunky and predictable, but at least the film never gets boring, though admittedly not particularly involving either. However, the final third of what is an overlong film anyway (133 minutes!) just descends even more into almost laughable contrivance. If this were not a book it would truly feel like that Cianfrance was making the story up as he went along and with no clear idea how to end it, as some of the decisions the characters make, certain scenes and some of the dialogue are quite cringe-worthy. This ultimately does produce a quite unsatisfying viewing experience by the time the credits eventually start rolling.
Aesthetically, The Light Between Oceans cannot be faulted; every shot put together by Cianfrance and his cinematographer Adam Arkapaw of the incredible scenery is stunningly beautiful and truly captures the isolation of the narrative’s location. The sound design is also fantastic; the howling wind is almost a character itself, and when there is a storm it is almost impossible to not to feel a chill. The music is effective, but, like the story, obvious and middle of the road. Alexandre Desplat is undoubtedly a very talented composer, but has become a bit of a cliché of himself; if a director wants a pounding score with dramatic strings they give Hans Zimmer a call, if they want melancholic, sombre string arrangement with plinkity-plonk pianos then they call Alexandre Desplat, and his score to The Light Between Oceans is functional, if unspectacular and not particularly memorable.
The performances too are exceptional, and ultimately a little wasted by lacklustre material they are given. In fact, the emotional depth of the performances at times actually threaten to give the film the genuine emotional substance its script and narrative dearly lack. Michael Fassbender is particularly excellent as Tom, and delivers a superbly understated performance of complexity; it is clear in his eyes that his character is haunted by the horrors he experienced in the war, but his stoicism and fierce loyalty to his wife and dedication to protect her make him an engaging character certainly worth caring about.
The characters played by Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz are less complex (as well as having English accents, despite living in Australia and all their family members having Australian accents – but never mind!), but both deliver affective and convincing performances. Well, as convincing as any actor can be when given such a clunky and clichéd script!
Hopefully Cianfrance was offered a big fat juicy pay cheque for adapting and directing The Light Between the Oceans and can now use this to fund a passion project of his, as he is a great filmmaker and it would be a waste of talent for him to make anymore lowest common denominator, focus group based, cliché-ridden melodramas like The Light Between the Oceans. His script certainly feels likes it is not made with any passion or interest (or perhaps his creative licence was restricted), while his camerawork is admittedly sublime and reminds us how good he is. There is no substance whatsoever in The Light Between the Oceans, making it a perfectly watchable, but a hollow and very forgettable film, and ultimately a waste of potential. However it feels that this is not the fault of the director, but those paying for the film telling him how to make it so that it sticks to the middle of the road from start to finish.
A watchable but highly forgettable hollow, middle-of-the-road melodrama with no ambitions of being any more than that; the ocean may be deep, but The Light Between the Oceans is more than happy to just takes its shoes off and just dip its toes in.