Adapted from M.L. Steadman’s 2012 novel, The Light Between Oceans frames the postwar condition and the larger concept of intractable grief within the kind of melodrama that will immediately call to some and repel others still. “Melodrama” is often treated as a pejorative term, but it’s never inherently bad; as with any other dramatically charged subgenre, it’s only as good or as laughable as its filmmakers’ interpretations. Here, Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) attempts to fuse the naturalistic intimacy of his previous work with the trappings of a traditional Hollywood postwar epic, and the mix is effective until the film’s increasingly unlikely story threatens to overwhelm everything else on the screen.
It’s 1918, and World War I has barely just concluded. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), like so many other men, has been discharged into a world not yet fully equipped to deal with the horrors so many experienced while serving, where PTSD doesn’t have a name yet. He wants solitude after four years enlisted, and so finds himself on Janus, a remote island slightly removed from the shores of western Australia, to maintain a lighthouse year-round. He’s sent out for six months, and spends most of his time alternately tending to the machinery and trying to not break from the emotional strain left on him by his time at war. Even in small conversations with his employers, the war is still everywhere. It hangs over every interaction, and it’s impossible to escape.
He’s offered a full-time extension before long, and there’s more than just the solitude to keep Tom at Janus. When Tom comes inland, which isn’t often, he’s able to enjoy the company of Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), the kind of spirited idealist typical of a film like this one. Where Tom’s deliberation fulfills his need for isolation, the silence interrupted only by the perpetually roaring ocean surrounding him on all sides, Isabel sees Janus as an idyll of tranquility, a world separate from the chaotic one in which she lives. Both yearn for escape, and soon for company, and before long Tom and Isabel have married, both for love and to fulfill the legal requirements for her to relocate to Janus.
The early portion of The Light Between Oceans features some of the film’s strongest work on all fronts. Cianfrance’s penchant for intense, lingering close-ups on his actors is characteristically effective; he’s a dramatist at heart, and it’s his tendency to linger on the film’s most intense emotions at protracted length that provides the film with much of its resonance. While some of the exchanges between Tom and Isabel verge on precocious, Cianfrance ably conveys the sense that the couple’s quick courtship is less a narrative convenience than the fulfillment of aching needs for both. Tom and Isabel are in love, but they’re also desperate for more than what life has given them. He articulates that need through montages of small, innocuous daily incidents: they tend the land around their modest island house, Isabel plays a long-damaged piano, Tom maintains the island’s logbook. They make love, slowly. Sometimes Tom still finds himself in agony when nobody’s looking.
The island and its nearby town, as framed by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, are repeatedly isolated in the face of the ocean’s immovable power. For the film’s occasionally tedious attempts to draw out this central metaphor in belabored dialogue (its brief bits of narration are particularly guilty), Cianfrance and Arkapaw view Janus less as a fantasy getaway than as a constantly embattled fortress, a place where love can happen and a home can be built but also one surrounded by the constant threat of dangers beyond its inhabitants’ control.
When tragedy strikes the couple, The Light Between Oceans attempts to reframe itself as a melodrama with a more complicated sense of morality than its early moments might suggest. Tom and Isabel endure a grievous loss, and recover only to relive it a second time shortly thereafter. (To the film’s credit, loss is presented as sudden and tragically unavoidable.) As their love threatens to deteriorate, a small rowboat washes ashore on Janus. The man inside of it is dead, and has been so for some time, but the infant girl with him is not. Tom and Isabel take her in, and make their choice: they keep the child. “We’re not doing anything wrong. She’s here, we can save her,” Isabel insists. Tom, knowing how desperately Isabel needs to know hope again, goes along with her.
The Light Between Oceans becomes a more familiar kind of family melodrama after this point, and for its efforts to bring nuance to its storytelling, it’s also a less interesting film from that point forth. As Tom and Isabel’s assumed child begins to grow, everything from the physical disparities between parents and child to Tom’s increasing discomfort with their charade conspires to tear apart the life the couple has assembled for themselves. This is familiar narrative territory for Cianfrance, whose previous films have also explored the lies that both lovers and families tell themselves to remain intact, as well as the corrosive power of time’s inevitable march forward. But where he’s previously addressed that pain on a humanistic level, Oceans sees the director attempting to fuse those emotional shades with a story that often feels less concerned with those struggles than with its ponderous twists of fate.
It’s that dichotomy between Cianfrance’s delicate direction and the shaky machinations of his adapted screenplay that underwhelms the film’s early promise. It also does something of a disservice to the performers on hand, all of whom elevate the increasingly familiar material with strong work. Fassbender draws on a number of modes that the steely actor isn’t usually asked to demonstrate; his initial withdrawal gives way to paternal warmth, which he’s able to impart without ever losing the emotional distance on which the performance is built. And Vikander is a standout, mining endless depth from a showy role that calls for no shortage of the tears and collapses characteristic of the genre. Isabel might be an archetype, but she’s brought to vivid life by the actress’ understanding of the smaller characteristics of emotional damage, the physical changes that take over in times of extreme stress. It’s her deterioration that serves as the film’s emotional center, and Vikander sells it with utter conviction.
The film’s core relationship is so well-drawn that The Light Between Oceans is never as interesting when its focus moves elsewhere. As their little Lucy gets older, and the consequences of their fateful choice begin to mount, the film builds a clichéd sense of impending dread that it illustrates more faithfully elsewhere with a roaring ocean and fewer words. There’s power in the film’s heightened later scenes, but it comes at the expense of emotional honesty. While Tom’s fixation on Hannah (Rachel Weisz), a local widow struggling with her own losses, is an effectively ironic reflection of the film’s central conflict, Weisz is left underserved; she’s less a character than a physical manifestation of Tom and Isabel’s lingering guilt.
Guilt is paramount to The Light Between Oceans. It’s then the film’s compulsion to let the guilt and shame and secrets mount beyond the point of logic, and then beyond the point of plausibility, that underwhelms its stronger sequences. Much of the film’s power comes from its unwillingness to look away from the moral turpitude involved in Tom and Isabel’s fateful decision; what they do, they do out of pain and need, but it’s a deeply selfish thing all the same. Oceans initially draws this line in following its growing tragedy to its inevitable end, refusing to exonerate either of its main characters for their choices, so it’s then frustrating when the film concludes with what can’t help but feel like something of an emotional copout given what comes before. The Light Between Oceans is an effective melodrama, but the lingering sensation the film leaves after its end is that it might have been much more.