Although apparently having met for the first time on the dance floor of some Toronto Film Festival after party, it’s on the set of The Light Between Oceans that co-stars and now Hollywood power couple Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander became an item – and frankly, who could blame them? When you’re “stuck” for months in a lighthouse surrounded by the idyllic Australian landscape whilst shooting a romantic period drama based on a best-selling novel, it must be hard to not get caught in the mood for love.
Part thought-provoking morality tale, part sweeping romance, The Light Between Oceans follows Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender), a World War I veteran who finds a job as lighthouse keeper on the remote Janus Rock off the coast of Western Australia. There he soon falls in love with Isabelle Graysmark (Vikander), a beautiful and sweet young woman from the nearby village. As they get married, Isabelle moves to the lighthouse with Tom, starting their life together in idyllic fashion worthy of a romantic poem, but after the couple conceive twice and lose both babies, Isabelle has a hard time coping with the trauma and the prospect of being unable to ever complete a pregnancy.
One day a rowboat washes ashore, carrying a dead man’s body and a crying infant whom Tom and Isabelle rescue and tend to. She sees the event as the answer to her prayers and sorrow, and is determined to raise the child as their own. It doesn’t take much to imagine how the couple’s decision is destined to have profound repercussions, which will soon materialise in the beautiful form of grieving widow Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz). Suffice to say the moral dilemmas at the centre of the story are more complex than they appear under superficial scrutiny, but they are skillfully explored from all different angles.
Director Derek Cianfrance keeps the tension high but avoids the pitfalls of over-the-top melodramatic outbursts to analyse the delicate matters at hand and he is supported by outstanding turns from the entire cast. Vikander and Fassbender shine as the leads: their amazing chemistry and their understated, believable performances will tug at your heartstrings without ever making you feel emotionally manipulated. The same can be said for the brilliant Weisz, who has the nuanced role of sympathetic antagonist and carries along the film’s thematic thread about love and forgiveness.
One criticism worth mentioning, though it may be inherited from the novel, is in regard to a couple of structural choices. One is the flashback to Hannah’s past with her husband whilst the other is the brusque flash-forward to the story’s epilogue – the way they’re both handled is a bit jarring and one can’t help but wonder whether something was lost in translating from the written page to the screen.
Still, The Light Between Oceans is a compelling film of visceral beauty that hypnotises you from start to finish and deserves to be commended for avoiding the cheesy pitfalls the period genre often gets caught up in. Impeccably produced and beautifully scored by talented maestro Alexandre Desplat, this is a story with a haunting, powerful message we tend to take for granted: love is forgiveness and forgiveness is love.
Words by Francesco Cerniglia