“The Light Between Oceans” overcomes slow pace with strong performances

Charles Liu

For a movie that has Oscar bait written all over it, “The Light Between Oceans” delivers a surprising amount of substance. Alhough its lavish production design, artsy camera shots and reserved mood scream pretentious at times, this sweeping melodrama moves more often than it stalls.

The film takes place after the end of World War I in western Australia, where veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes up a job as the keeper of a remote lighthouse on Janus Rock, an island far from shore. Tom is a broken man suffering from survivor’s guilt. He finds solace in his young wife, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), but their relationship is one out of a fairy tale, rather than rooted in reality.

Director Derek Cianfrance indulges much too long in the lovers’ courtship, threatening to sink the movie before it even begins with its repetitive, plodding nature. When Isabel has her first miscarriage, the tragedy strikes a chord. The second time? Not as much, in spite of Isabel’s mournful wails and Tom’s desperate screams of “What do I do?” 

Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography will help some viewers pass the time, for the film often stops to let the gorgeous ocean scenery speak for itself. The powerful images have a classic, painterly essence, making “The Light Between Oceans” feel like a production of an older cinematic age. 

Once the woes of Tom and Isabel have been established, the plot suddenly becomes compelling: A boat carrying a dead man and a crying baby girl ends up on Janus Rock. The couple save the baby, but disagree on what to do with her. Tom wants to report her arrival and send for help, but Isabel desperately begs him to keep her, fearing an attempt at a legal adoption would fail. After all, what orphanage would let a baby live on a barren island? 

During this scene, Vikander puts on her best crying face and lets forth a wave of emotion. Fassbender, quiet and solemn, allows Tom’s guilt to seep through in his guarded performance and, against his better judgment, agrees to keep the girl. They name her Lucy, and she grows up happily.

Three years pass, and Tom encounters Hannah (Rachel Weisz), a grieving mother who lost her husband and daughter at sea. Wracked with guilt, Tom inconspicuously delivers a note that informs Hannah of Lucy’s survival. Hannah goes to the authorities, and Tom and Isabel must confront the possibility of losing their daughter.

“The Light Between Oceans” is a blatant tear-jerker, often veering into soapy territory and becoming consumed by its self-seriousness. Yet its prestigious cast keeps it afloat, and the film’s second half, though over-reliant on coincidences and twists, remains a gripping tale of morality. It asks powerful questions about parenthood and paints Tom and Isabel in shades of gray. It’s clear what they did was wrong, but is it right for Hannah to take Lucy away from the only family she knows? 

Cianfrance squeezes a lot of drama out of the central dilemma, and Weisz’s kindhearted turn makes it hard to dislike Hannah, who just wants to reclaim the pieces of her old life and build a family of her own. It’s all very dark, but the film’s tender heart gives it an ultimately hopeful tone.

“The Light Between Oceans” makes up for its inert opening with flawed but affecting second and third acts. It ends on a bittersweet note, a peaceful sunset that makes Tom and Isabel’s journey mostly worthwhile. While Cianfrance’s latest work suffers from its heavy-handed emotional wringing, it finds salvation in its moments of grace.

“The Light Between Oceans”
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 132 minutes
Score: 3.5/5 stars