If history was one of your favorite subjects at school, and you like period pieces because you can leave the current moment behind, you’ll find much to enjoy in “The Light Between Oceans.” It’s a handsomely shot dramatic romance, impressively costumed and old-school to the core.
With the story beginning a century ago, the lighting is often done with gas lamps and candles, the tone is chaste and courtship dancing is about gentle, slow-moving embraces. Stars Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander deliver performances that are at once no-holds-barred and subtly controlled.
This would be a very good film if it weren’t for an overload of plot holes, mysteries that are never clarified and unlikely events. Instead it’s a relic of a simpler time crusted with rust and cobwebs.
Adapted from M.L. Stedman’s bestselling novel by writer/director Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine,” “The Place Beyond the Pines”), the story unfolds amid the surging surf and howling rainstorms of island life off the coast of western Australia. Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a WWI combatant looking for an isolated post to unpack his scarred emotional baggage.
Taking the job of caretaker for an island lighthouse serving a quaint seaside hamlet, he earns the respect of the town’s residents, especially Isabel Graysmark (Vikander), a vivacious beauty who enjoys the handsome newcomer’s company. Their marriage and secluded life together at the distant station multiplies their happiness. Then misfortunes beset them and their relationship becomes as precarious as life amid the tumultuous high seas.
Without digging deeply into the story’s secrets, it can be said that Isabel experiences kinship heartbreaks that leave her traumatized. Despite Tom’s devotion, her solace arrives only when a near-miraculous event puts a newborn baby on the couple’s shore.
Isabel insists that they keep and raise the child as their own; surely the island’s rare visitors will accept it as their own. Tom, an honor-bound veteran to the core, argues against her plan, but she cannot be denied. And as the foundling responds to their care with unconditional love, their deception feels like a blessing. Deeper mishaps strike, pulling the pair farther apart than ever. Raising the little girl with love for four years felt like a victimless wrongdoing. Then it resembled a kidnapping demanding an agonizing atonement.
Well cast as the film is, it makes its actors play poorly defined people. Vikander’s Isabel is a cauldron of anger, rage and frustration who doesn’t add up to a coherent whole. Isabel presents herself as the perfect wife, the perfect mother, at times the perfect lover, but in her background is a suppressed hysteria that’s desperate to come out. The film doesn’t seem entirely sure how we should feel about her. She is a strange creature, not just a victim, not just an innocent. She is deceitful, manipulative and needy. She is also wonderful, full of energy and love. I don’t think that complicated characters should be simplified, but they should be clarified.
Fassbender’s Tom is equally perplexing. He is willing to cast aside his sense of honesty and honor on Isabel’s behalf. But is that an act of self-sacrificing nobility or moral cowardice?
Rachel Weisz appears as an important background character who is equally lost at sea, controlling the fates of Tom and Isabel by making them choose between equally painful options. Even the events that deliver the couple’s godsend of an infant never have a logical explanation.
The film plays more like a fable than a story of earthbound humans, and a fractured fairy tale at that.