Blending the restraint and remoteness of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach with the scope and bittersweetness of Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, writer and director Derek Cianfrance’s Western Australian epic The Light Between Oceans, based upon a novel by M.L. Stedman, lulls the audience into a dark and solemn elegy for the lonely. That the movie also manages to equate loneliness with childlessness is among its fundamental flaws and it never sharpens its rough edges in this regard.
Despite this serious drawback, the film is lush, poetic and heartbreaking and, ultimately, something of a salve for men of war. At center is the character Tom, played by Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs, X-Men: First Class, Shame, Macbeth, 12 Years a Slave), whose time at war in France has badly damaged him. The year is 1918 and The Light Between Oceans, commencing before Christmastime after World War 1 amid the sounds of seagulls and waves crashing against the shore, foretells its tale with pictures of hypnotic beauty on the Australian coast, gently looping sounds and Alexandre Desplat‘s haunting, romantic theme. A train cuts through the rugged landscape and its steam rises and undulates with the wild, twisting winds as mysterious Tom makes his way far away to a distant place near an island with a lighthouse, where he comes to work alone.
This desire to detach from the world will test Tom, who looks in the mirror for a spell before casting off into his newly monastic life. On the way, he encounters Isabel, an intense and spirited woman (Alicia Vikander, Anna Karenina, The Danish Girl, Ex Machina) who has losses of her own. But the sharp, wrenching movie about man and woman and a place with “no doctor, no school, no church” begins and ends focused on Tom. Like American Sniper, Gunga Din and The Hurt Locker, The Light Between Oceans strives to dramatize the toll war takes on the man who was once a soldier.
As such, it takes an inventory of the lighthouse keeper and his needs, wants and moral character. Yet, unlike those other movies, this picture takes place after the war and it casts him aside to take stock, too, of the women and men affected by Tom’s pivotal life choices. Fassbender plays it straight as always, never deviating from the distant, silent character, whose stern discipline blinds him to his deficiencies. Some are quite practical. Others are nuanced. But he writes and courts the sensual Isabel, who writes and courts him back, and they become enmeshed in the consequences of embarking on Tom’s getaway.
At intervals, The Light Between Oceans is ponderous. The imagery and some scenes are too entranced with themselves, leaving Isabel too disjointed as a character to fully persuade the audience of her actions. Pockets of missing plot points emerge and Cianfrance is too intent on reaching the final destination, through no fault of Vikander’s, to fill in the gaps. Would a woman so in love with a man like Tom become so dejected at the loss of her child? Perhaps, and Isabel’s pain and suffering spin a mystery of their own.
Enter the captivating Rachel Weisz (Hypatia in Agora) as Hannah, a widow and mother with a stronger sense of herself and the world. Weisz delivers one of her best performances in the most challenging role. Her scenes with Fassbender are impossible not to watch as the plot twists and thickens beyond whatever the trailer and promotional clips suggest, as the central conflict over an angelic child becomes entwined with forgiveness, aftermath and coming to terms with one’s sins. That said, The Light Between Oceans, which deftly and often majestically unfolds its scenic wonder in concert with its serenity theme, is absent the brightest illumination which comes from fuller thematic and character development, landing closer to the unfulfilled promise of The Thorn Birds than to the sense of anguished acceptance in On the Beach.
Though it is too plot-driven, with an outstanding supporting cast including veteran Australian actors Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown, The Light Between Oceans is nonetheless satisfying and contemplative about how war rages within until one summons the courage to induce an inner peace.