Film Review: “The Light Between Oceans”

Observant and spry, World War I veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is a man lacking in purpose but not drive. After treading through miles of war-torn fields and viewing the graceless mortality of man firsthand, he latches onto the radically different atmosphere provided by a lighthouse keeper’s outpost on Janus Rock, off Australia’s coast. Despite his soft-spoken manner, Tom seems to be satisfied upon arrival, glad that it is what it is: different.

Fassbender’s take of the near-stoic Tom Sherbourne is right is in his wheelhouse, lounging somewhere between his portrayal of Bobby Sands’ meat-and-potatoes hardiness in Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” and the heavy heart of Edward Rochester in Cary Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre.” Isabel (Alicia Vikander) is the centerpiece of every scene she’s in, imbued with an invigorating positivity despite a lingering sense of cynicism and lost innocence. Regardless of Fassbender’s workmanlike perfection, this is Vikander’s vehicle. Equally adept at being heart-wrenching and melting, Vikander makes a case for one of the year’s best performances.

The first 30 minutes play out like a spectral recollection of their relationship’s infancy, edging into moments of sheer joy and devastation alike. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s digital daze sweeps us into a reverie with a mix of glaring whites and soft tones, heightening the Australian landscape into an Eden-like paradise. A first date plays out like an interview gone wrong, with the two forgoing prosaic pleasantries for emotional honesty. Isabel reveals that she had lost both her brothers to the war, all too often succumbing to thoughts of herself as an unworthy survivor. Tom confides in Isabel without hesitation, speaking on his rough childhood and tour – but these raw beginnings prove to be fertile ground.

After a time of so much loss, there’s hope to be found in new relationships. Time isn’t minced for love to develop with letters and little banter for Tom, making for a sloppy if serviceably saccharine montage. This slight disregard for pacing makes for awkward stalls and rapid acceleration that leave the film feeling carelessly edited at times. A tendency to overdraw some scenes and stunt others isn’t a fatal issue, but sweeping moments land with enough aplomb to dissipate the indulgences of a liberal editing bay.

Two subsequent miscarriages leave a shell-shocked Isabel in their wake. A baby has washed ashore crying, riding the waves alongside her deceased father and a single silver rattle from a life she barely knew. Tom, the quaint and steadfast man he is, is obligated to report it all. Isabel sees this as a gift from God and begs Tom to keep her, a defenseless child in need of a home. Years of devastation and the brazen sincerity of Isabel tip Tom into fatherhood, burying the body and marching forth with the newly christened “Lucy.” There’s a beauty in the family simply being as time glues them closer together – a family composed of people acquainted with loss now have each other.

Existing in their own blissful paradigm of a pseudo-normative family structure, they are ignorant of Lucy’s lineage until Tom finds a woman weeping at a tombstone dedicated to “Grace and Leon Roennfeldt” – a father and daughter lost at sea.

The small coastal town Tom serves with his tenure at the lighthouse naturally displays a sense of boundless human connectivity. The film rounds out the stories of others to prove every person has his own humble quest, another thread to be added alongside the menagerie of everybody’s desires. Family, love, money – whatever it may be, motive keeps the heart pumping. That’s why we ache when Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz) steps away from the tombstone, there’s a painful reaffirmation – she has no motive. The days have long since been grey and muted for her, but the return of Lucy’s keepsake toy and a note saying she’s well disorient her stable, if empty, life.

Even in relative isolation, Tom is tied to the mainland with guilt. A personal code of right and wrong had gotten him through the war, but the lay of the island is foreign. His actions, which would feel self-serving had it not been for a conviction that seeks to calm the pain of a visibly stricken mother, speak for him when words so often don’t. Hannah’s single-minded search for the whereabouts her child ring with a maternal justice that will leave no winners. What makes the film so compelling at its best points is the personal debate that rises from the question of Lucy’s true family. She’s spent years with the indisputable love of Tom and Isabel, learning how to talk and walk, but all while being a living ghost. A family’s love may be unconditional, but their home isn’t.

Rating: B
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson
Release Date: September 2, 2016
Rated: PG-13

Image Courtesy of AceShowBiz