When we first see a war-torn Michael Fassbender accepting a job that promises utter isolation, the sobering tone of “The Light Between Oceans” takes hold.
Set in a post-World War I Australia, “The Light Between Oceans,” based on M.L. Stedman’s novel, depicts a solemn story that at times becomes lost in its own grief. Sweeping cinematography shows us expansive shots of the Australian coastline, but measured cast performances — with Michael Fassbender the clear standout — are overwhelmed by in-your-face, extreme close-ups that try so hard to make you feel something. With a story so heart-wrenching in the first place, director Derek Cianfrance’s lack of trust in his audience is as frustrating as the character struggles unfolding on the screen.
With the opening frames, we meet Tom Sherborne (Fassbender), a veteran who has accepted the position of lighthouse keeper on Janus Island off the coast of Australia. He will be alone for at least six months at a time, but he appears to welcome the solitude as a sort of penance for returning from a war that claimed so many other lives.
Despite Tom’s stoicism, his life takes a turn for the better when he meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander), the beautiful daughter of his new boss. Her vibrancy and warmth take him aback, but as he writes to her from Janus, he admits that “he can’t stop thinking about her.” Soon Isabel and Tom are married, and they attempt to begin a family on Janus Island, with Isabel quickly getting pregnant. But the baby is lost in a heartbreaking miscarriage. Even worse, Isabel loses the baby as she tries to reach Tom in the lighthouse, where he cannot hear her over a violent storm.
They try once more. Again, it ends in tragedy.
But one day, as Isabel and Tom mourn their loss, a rowboat washes ashore. Inside is a dead man and a baby girl. Tom insists that he reports the find, but Isabel, desperate in her grief, begs to keep the baby. No one on the mainland even knows Isabel lost their second baby; she promises no one would ever know. Tom relents, and the baby becomes their new daughter Lucy. In a return to the mainland a few years later, Tom encounters Lucy’s biological mother, Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), which begins a spiral of guilt and confession.
In a script that already relies on melodrama but still manages to inspire sympathy in its audience, it is beyond irritating that the creators can’t back off enough to allow that audience to reach its own conclusions. Performances, namely Vikander’s, are swallowed in a ridiculous amount of close-ups in soft focus, with every little tear and dribble of snot exploited within an inch of its life in a bid to make you cry. Alexandre Desplat’s over the top score doesn’t help. The failures of “The Light Between Oceans” all go back to directorial trust, with the manipulation of the audience nearly drowning the film.
Yet, despite these glaring problems, “The Light Between Oceans” is still worth a look, namely for Fassbender’s Oscar-worthy performance and for the moments of emotional truth that still manage to shine through.
Bring some tissues; you’ll need them.