Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans opened last year to very little fanfare, and that tepid response to the film prompted an unfortunate letter from the director’s wife Shannon Plumb. While Plumb certainly made some good points about some of the odd and unfair criticisms hurled at the film and various outlets breaking embargo to seemingly take delight in undermining the hard work of her husband, to many it came across as another example of artists blaming the critics for a work’s failure to capture the attention of audiences.
I, however, was not one of the haters to this tragic romance, as you can see from my initial review. Revisiting the film for its Blu-ray release it becomes more and more apparent that The Light Between Oceans is truly a heartbreaking piece of drama that is visually vibrant with lush cinematography capturing stunning vistas and gorgeous sunsets as a trio of incredibly talented actors in Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz give powerful performances. The underwhelming response to the film isn’t on the shoulders critics that gave it a tepid response, truly terrible pieces of cinema have been able to overcome much harsher reviews to box office success regardless. What led to the underwhelming response to The Light Between Oceans for general audiences was the early September release date, typically a dumping ground for movies that studios are ashamed of. It was too late to be an adult alternative to the bombastic studio blockbusters and too early to be taken seriously as an awards contender.
Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) has just taken a job at a secluded light house. The veteran of World War I will live on an island that is only reachable by boat. In his brief time away from his post, Tom quickly falls for Isabel Graysmark (Vikander) and the two have a whirlwind romance that sees them wed, with the bride joining her husband on the secluded island. But the good times are short-lived as Isabel is unable to bear children, and the two lovers must deal with the aftermath of her miscarriages. Though Tom is understanding, the pain of losing her unborn children takes its toll on Isabel and soon this whirlwind romance seems irreparably damaged. Until one day, a boat drifts to their shore. Within the derelict vessel lies the dead body of a man and a baby that is barely surviving. Against his better judgement, Tom doesn’t report the finding and the two raise the baby girl as their own. Years later, Tom unwittingly discovers the mother, Hannah (Weisz), of the child they’ve been raising and the guilt soon takes its toll on the conscience of Tom. Hoping to give the grieving mother some piece of mind, Tom leaves anonymous letters informer Hannah that her daughter is fine, but these notes lead to a series of events that will shatter the lives of himself and his beloved wife, and fracture the life they’ve made for themselves.
The reality is that The Light Between Oceans is a weepy melodrama, and that’s not intended as a pejorative as much as simply stating what the movie is. Cianfrance’s adaptation of M.L. Steadman’s novel builds a whirlwind romance between Tom and Isabel, and if you go into the movie knowing little of the plot you might think this is just a simple romance picture. It’s as the film slowly progresses, again building that sense of security between this new family held together by one secret, that The Light Between Oceans finds its moralistic streak as the guilt wears on Tom. The character is forced to decide between clearing his conscience and hurting the woman he loves – a no-win scenario that allows the character some form of redemption through punishment.
It’s the trio of leading actors that bring that gut-wrenching drama to life, led by a powerful albeit subdued performance by Michael Fassbender. His Tom has seen unspeakable horrors in the trenches of World War I. Though the character never expresses the immense pain from these experiences, Fassbender conveys with his eyes, a lingering pain that even the widest smile can’t hide. Conversely, there’s an innocence that Alicia Vikander bring to Isabel. Her smile exudes warmth and compassion. However, the actress takes the performance to a different level when the multiple miscarriages leave her in despair. Vikander even takes this a step further as the film approaches its increasingly heartbreaking climax, proving that she’s a force on the screen to be reckoned with. As usual, Rachel Weisz gives a dynamic performance, one that just adds another layer of tragedy to the mounting sadness of events in the film. One way or another, this powerhouse trio of actors will get you reaching for the tissues before the credits roll.
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of The Light Between Oceans is the obvious fact that the film is simply gorgeous to look at. Cianfrance and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw fill the movie with majestic vistas that capture the light right at the magic hour, a soft natural beauty that runs counter to the heartbreaking human drama of the story. The cinematography is deft blend of pure cinematic majesty and naturalistic lighting.
Audio commentary from writer-director Derek Cianfrance is one of the special features available on the Blu-ray edition of The Light Between Oceans. The other special features are documentaries, one exploring the making of the film featuring interviews with the cast and crew as they filmed the movie in New Zealand. The other featurette focuses on the historical aspects of the story, examining the trials and tribulations of a lighthouse keeper in the early 20th Century. All in all, it’s a pretty good Blu-ray edition, nothing too overwhelming and not sparse.
The Light Between Oceans didn’t find its audience on its initial theatrical release and was subject to some harsh criticisms that didn’t seem earnest in their examination of the film. Just because a movie isn’t greeted with universal praise doesn’t mean that’s it’s not worth your while. The Light Between Oceans will eventually find its audience in those that are looking for a melodrama that balances whirlwind romance and devastating drama. Just make sure you have those tissues ready.
The Light Between Oceans
- Overall Score
A heartbreaking drama led by a three powerful performances, The Light Between Oceans places its escalating tragedy within some beautifully composed shots by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw in a melodrama that has you reaching for the tissues.