This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
A lighthouse keeper and his young wife, living alone on the outskirts of a remote Australian town and struggling to have a child of their own, come across a rowing boat marooned on the deserted beach containing a dead man and a crying baby girl. Deciding to keep the child for themselves, their relationship and their values are put to the test when, two years later, he has a chance encounter with a woman who is clearly their child's real mother.
What we thought
Based on the highly acclaimed 2012 novel by M. L. Stedman, which I admittedly have never read, The Light Between Oceans is the rare adaptation of what is ultimately a relatively lengthy novel that feels neither overstuffed nor rushed (nor horribly overdrawn like the ten-hour slog of the Hobbit, of course). Even more impressively, it manages to stay true to its source's novelistic structure, even as it remains defiantly and purposefully cinematic.
What this means, basically, is that the film is very slow and fairly long but is uses exactly this deliberateness of pace and indulgent running time to really draw you into its complex characters and the very singular world they inhabit. This isn't a film of major plot revelations but is one with a fully developed moral dilemma at its core; revolving around intricately drawn characters and a real sense of the slowly maddening isolation that slowly starts to corrode not just the tether that ties this hopelessly-in-love couple to the norms, realities and morals of the wider world but even the their own carefully constructed, if highly insulated, family.
As the latest film from writer/ director Derek Cianfrance, who is known for similarly tough, dramatic fare like Blue Valentine and the Place Beyond the Pines, it's no surprise that the Light Between Oceans is aimed very much at more mature – or, at least, more patient – audiences who are willing to embrace its quiet beauty, its complexity and its character-driven storytelling. It is, however, both far more accessible than either of his two previous films and, for my money anyway, quite a bit more dramatically fulfilling and easily enjoyable.
If nothing else, it's certainly an absolute joy to behold, as even when the story itself brings out the ugliest impulses in some of its characters, it's never less than beautiful on an aesthetic level . The cinematography by Adam Arkapow is beautifully, moodily evocative and is punctuated by a hauntingly spare score by the great Alexandre Desplat, both of which combine to form something that is utterly compelling (albeit it sometimes sleepily so) on even a base, visceral level.
As for the performances, Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz are every bit as excellent as you would expect them to be. Honestly, at this point, could you imagine a safer triple-bill? Still, just because all three of these actors seem incapable of putting a foot wrong doesn't mean we should overlook just how good they are here.
They are called on to play some extremely complex, often highly unlikable characters who, nonetheless, all equally hold your sympathies even as you find yourself wanting to give them a good shake at least once in the course of the film. Vikander, in particular, is just wonderful as a woman whose youth makes her both immature and selfish but whose basic warmth and humanity makes it impossible to truly hate her, even at her lowest moments.
The Light Between Oceans probably isn't for everyone and it does rely on perhaps one contrivance too many to go down as a total classic (though that's a high 4-stars) but it's a very fine piece of work nonetheless that is an easy recommendation for anyone looking for a bit of a change of pace for their next cinema outing. Personally, from where I'm sitting, it's one of the must-see movies of the year so far.