Courtesy of DreamWorks

September 8, 2016

The (Dim) Light Between Oceans

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There’s a scene early on in The Light Between Oceans where Alicia Vikander’s character speaks of a mother and father still being referred to as such even after they no longer have a child, and she states that she feels like a sister even after losing siblings of her own. Moments such as these tease the potential for interesting themes and ideas to be played out in the film. Unfortunately the film becomes lost in a heap of overwrought melodrama that ends up squandering an extremely high amount of potential.

Based on the 2012 novel of the same name by M.L Stedman, The Light Between Oceans revolves around a lighthouse keeper named Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) and his wife Isabel (Alicia Vikander). They live on an island off the coast of post-World War I Western Australia, and who one day discover a newborn baby that has washed ashore on a boat. They decide to adopt and raise the child. After returning to the mainland several years later, however, the two go through an encounter with a particular woman (Rachel Weisz) that threatens the security of the family they have created.

The talent behind the film is undeniable. Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), lensed by Adam Arkapaw (True Detective S1, Macbeth) and scored by Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom), it’s safe to say that The Light Between Oceans is a very competently made film. The cinematography in particular is absolutely gorgeous: Every shot is beautifully evocative of the expansive and inescapable landscape surrounding the lighthouse. Where this film falters, however, is with its script. Forced to adapt the screenplay from existing material, I feel that Derek Cianfrance’s attempt to tell a narrative that expresses the themes that he finds so fascinating are hindered. The themes — love, grief, parenthood and isolation — are vividly conveyed throughout his filmography.

Unfortunately, such themes, as interesting as they may be, have been presented much more strongly in Cianfrance’s previous work. The concept of the bonds that create a marriage, and whether those bonds will hold over time and through trial and tribulation is chillingly explored in Blue Valentine. And while The Place Beyond the Pines may have been an overly ambitious swing on Cianfrance’s part, its attempt to connect fathers and sons rings true with much greater emotional resonance than it does in The Light Between Oceans.

Cianfrance’s far and away largest failure comes when he tries to present characters as real human beings. All the characters in The Light Between Oceans feel like ideas and tropes rather than actual human beings. Tom Sherbourne is a war veteran who seeks the isolation of the lighthouse to get away from his haunting past, and yet Michael Fassbender is restricted to long silences that fail to truly reveal his inner turmoil. Isabel has endured personal tragedies, as expressed in the film. But her character is not fully explored and the audience almost never understands or experiences her perspective. Even more offensive, however, was the way the audience is presented with Rachel Weisz’s character. Despite her character’s logical and understandable actions, I still disliked her due to the extreme one-sidedness that came with how she was perceived. The trio of Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz are all tremendous actors and realize their roles well, but it is disappointing to see that they have been given so little to work with.
While these characters may not be the strongest, the actors’ strong performances still caused me to care about their fates. That is, until the third act of the film takes a melodramatic, contrived and rushed turn which destabilized any sense of emotional attachment that I had remaining. It’s frantic, messy and clichéd in its attempt to purvey the true meaning of parenthood as well as the consequences of hiding truths. I admired the film’s attempts to put forward these ideas, but I felt let down by the overall execution.

All in all, The Light Between Oceans is a supremely made and well-acted romantic melodrama which touched upon some very interesting themes regarding love, grief and familial ties that was brought down by a sloppy final third. I may appear to be coming down hard on the film, but that is in part due to being quite impressed with Derek Cianfrance’s previous efforts, which had a gritty sense of realism about them. The melodramatic touches and conveniences of this film were something that I expected and did not mind, and in fact I relatively enjoyed the film throughout. There is just not enough to digest beneath the surface and it fails to fully hit with the emotional resonance that I (or it) may have wanted.

Elyes Benantar is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]