Derek Cianfrance is an unusual director. And his films are unusually compelling, even when they don’t feel fully realized. His first, Blue Valentine, was a devastating portrait that showed the rise and fall of love in a non-linear framework. His second, The Place Beyond The Pines ponders the lengths to which the love of a child will drive a parent. His third, and latest, The Light Between Oceans lives somewhere in the middle of those themes, but it’s also dunked in a hefty layer of melodrama.
The Alicia Vikander-Michael Fassbender vehicle is the first film Cianfrance has adapted, rather than crafting an original screenplay, and is also the origin of its stars real life romance. The Light Between Oceans begins in Australia in 1918, though we get precious few indicators on locale, there are really only the cars on a certain side of the road and some geography to clue us in, but the implications of the era are universal. World War I is over, and the men who found their way out of the war are changed. Tom is one of those men. He takes a job on an isolated island seeking closure and distance. But what he finds is love (in a hopeless place) with the vivacious Isabel.
At first, we see only the beauty in their relationship and the sweeping landscape. There’s soft light and sweet scenes and we could stay there forever. Then, tragedy and new life as a baby washes onto shore and alters Tom and Isabel’s sleepy, solitary reality. Enter a whole host of new conflicts and painful revelations that make for an emotional progression of the picture.
All of this — and it goes almost without saying when you have Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz heading your cast — is exceedingly well acted and human. The pedigree and finesse on screen is such that even the bits of the film that seem to get away from Cianfrance or veer into the overblown are still recognizably made by expert hands.
The Light Between Oceans isn’t fully successful. It occasionally forces its characters, however dynamic they are, into actions that feel incomprehensible or unnatural, stumbling over its own sweeping efforts. And yet, it’s undeniably beautiful. And there is a magic to watching such earnest performances from such top-flight talent.