‘The Light Between Oceans’ is Beautifully Composed, Heartbreaking Drama

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The Light Between Oceans

I’m a big proponent of entering movies knowing as little as possible, which I understand is quite difficult in the modern era where the slightest plot points from movies more than two years away from release are strewn across the internet with little concern for secrecy. So I walked into the screening of Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans, an adaptation of the novel by M.L. Steadman, thinking that this movie would be a little tearjerker romance based solely upon the posters featuring its stars in a close romantic embrace. The Light Between Oceans is a tearjerker, alright, though not the kind that its marketing materials suggest. This is a heart-wrenching drama about the difficult choices people make for the ones they love and the unintended consequences of those actions.

Michael Fassbender stars as Tom Sherbourne, who has accepted a job as a lighthouse keeper on a secluded island off the Australian coast. Tom has seen horrors during the intense battles of World War I. He never speaks of what he’s seen, but he never has to. His face expresses all of the pain that he’s feeling. Before making his way to the secluded island with the lighthouse, Tom meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of Violet (Jane Menelaus) and Bill (Garry Macdonald). Their eyes meet and return to one another in a manner that suggests much more than a brief infatuation. Not long after, the two are married and Isabel joins Tom in his secluded island overseeing the lighthouse. Their idyllic marriage hits its rough spots when Isabel has a miscarriage, robbing her of her radiant smile and joyous demeanor. In the midst of their grief, a rowboat washes to their shore. In it a dead man and crying baby. Driven by duty, Tom wants to report the body and the baby, but Isabel wants to keep the baby as their own. Seeing the pained look in his wife’s face, Tom abides and the two raise the child as their own.

But the happiness that Tom and Isabel feel due to the young addition to their family comes at a cost for someone else. In the town on the day of their adopted daughter’s christening, Tom notices a grieving woman, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), by a gravestone. After she departs, he views the tombstone and is shocked to be presented with the face of the mother whose child he’s now raising. Years pass but the guilt Tom experiences never does. Tom’s guilt guides him to anonymously assuring Hannah that her daughter is well cared for, but it may very well come at the expense of the family he’s worked so hard to raise.

The Light Between Oceans works as well as it does because of the soulful performances by its trio of lead actors. There’s a real tangible chemistry between Fassbender and Vikander, and the looks they exchange does a better job conveying their mutual attraction better than any dialogue could. By that same measure, Fassbender and Vikander convey the heartbreak of their characters with that same muted energy, wordlessly conveying the emotional pain in the rougher scenes. Though she doesn’t appear until about halfway through the film, Rachel Weisz operates on the exact same level of skill as Fassbender and Vikander. All three actors put themselves and the audience through an emotional wringer, working with the material to pull the rug out from under the viewer at every available opportunity.

Derek Cianfrance and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw have crafted a film with lush, gorgeous cinematography. Even if the film does run a bit too long, it’s always a wonder to look at, with sweeping images of stunning vistas in shimmering natural light. There’s a real sense of scale to the photographed images of The Light Between Oceans, with the massive whole of the island often signifying the insignificance of the characters when faced with the expansive sea and surroundings. All of these visual beauties are complimented to perfection with another wonderful score from the masterful Alexandre Desplat.

The Light Between Oceans is a beautifully shot, well-acted, and heartbreaking piece of drama. It’s lifted by its strong lead performances, all of whom capture the tragic spirit of the story unfolding. Not even the film’s coda, which features some incredibly inept makeup work, can diminish the raw human drama that captivates the viewer from the early frames. Derek Cianfrance has crafted a piece of cinema that will have audiences dabbing the tears from their eyes, if they’re not outright bawling by the film’s conclusion. Just don’t expect a simple little love story, The Light Between Oceans is so much more, and so much more heartbreaking than that.

The Light Between Oceans
  • Overall Score


A real heartbreaking piece of drama, The Light Between Oceans features gorgeous cinematography and powerful lead performances in Derek Cianfrance’s adaptation of M.L. Steadman’s novel.

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