The Light Between Oceans is a beautifully-made, slow-paced, old-fashioned epic romance, a film that immerses you so completely in another place and time, with such well-developed and believable characters, that 132 minutes feels like many hours and yet doesn’t feel a minute too long. It’s the kind of film they don’t make enough of anymore. And maybe that’s why the critics weren’t that impressed, using words like ‘plodding’, ‘melodramatic’ and ‘manipulative weeper’ to describe a thoroughly humanizing film about forgiveness, compassion and love.
The Light Between Oceans is written and directed by Derek Cianofrance, based on the bestselling debut novel by M.L. Stedman. Michael Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a young man who returns to Australia in 1918, after four years of war, broken and in need of peace and healing. The opportunity to work as a lighthouse keeper on an island (Janus) a hundred miles from the nearest person strikes him as an ideal way to get away. But it gets lonely in a hurry and he can’t stop thinking about Isabel (Alicia Vikander), the young woman he met just before heading out on his first three-month tour.
It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without some spoilers, so if you are not deterred by the words ‘slow-paced’, you may want to watch the film before reading further (this one is highly recommended for watching on the big screen).
Isabel and Tom get married and live together on the island for years. But after two miscarriages, Isabel despairs of starting a family - until a rowboat washes up on the shore carrying a dead young man and a screaming baby. Convinced that the baby would end up in an orphanage, and that the timing is too coincidental (Isabel has just lost the second child), Isabel convinces Tom not to report the boat and keep the baby as if it were their own. They name the baby Lucy (which means ‘light’).
Higher level of spoilers: Two years later, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and Tom discovers that the mother of the baby (Hannah, played by Rachel Weisz) is still alive and grieving the loss of her family. Tom’s conscience tears at him, precipitating a number of crises. And that’s enough to know to introduce the primary characters.
Fassbender and Vikander, two of the finest young actors out there, are outstanding in The Light Between Oceans, and Weisz isn’t far behind. The film is gorgeously shot on location in New Zealand and Tasmania. The good score is always present but not overwhelming. The screenplay is intelligent and moving and the directing is assured throughout.
Names in the film hint at deeper meanings, making for profound observations about life, about brokenness and, of course, about light in the midst of darkness. The Light Between Oceans may be a little too melodramatic, but only a little, and its flaws can be forgiven because it’s the kind of film that helps us to be better people, which Gareth and I agree is one of the criteria of greatness. So I think the critics got this one wrong as well (that’s three in a row). I award The Light Between Oceans ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up.