Before we get into the review proper, I thought I would state the obvious. All criticism is subjective. Just because I think one of the best films of the year so far is a flick about a sausage trying to have sex, find God and dose humanity with bath salts doesn't mean everyone else will feel that way. Movies are like lovers; new ones are exciting, old ones aren't as good as you remember and most of them make you feel bad.
"The Light Between Oceans" was not my cup of Nescafé, but that doesn't mean it won't be someone else's. I know that statement is true with every film I review, but this one in particular felt like it was aimed at a demographic very different from my own. There were multiple (older and female) patrons crying at the screening I attended, and if pearls had been handed out before the show, mostly everyone would have been clutching them.
The uniformly-excellent Michael Fassbender plays Tom, a veteran of The Great War who is hired as a lighthouse keeper on the coast of Western Australia. He's quiet, shy and somewhat numb to the world around him. He very slowly courts and eventually marries Isabel (the omnipresent and luminous Alicia Vikander), who moves out to the remote island with him. After Isabel has several miscarriages over the years, the couple grows more despondent and isolated from each other.
Their rescue, salvation and ultimate fall from grace comes when they rescue a baby from an adrift rowboat that washes up on shore. Inside the rowboat is only the baby, a fancy pacifier and a dead man. As Tom prepares to let the proper authorities know what has happened, Isabel convinces him to bury the body and raise the child as their own. Years later, while visiting the mainland, they encounter the child's biological mother and are faced with some very difficult decisions.
"The Light Between Oceans" is the type of old-fashioned melodrama that really doesn't get made anymore. While I'm not familiar with the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, I'm sure the convolutions of the plot would have worked much better as a long-form book than as a 135-minute motion picture. So many of the plot points felt like manufactured drama more than organic progressions of a storyline.
As his previous films proved, Director Derek Cianfrance ("Blue Valentine," "The Place Beyond the Pines") knows how to avoid needless dramatic machinations, but he seems constrained here by a story that doesn't feel truthful. His unpretentious direction, combined with the great acting, the beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat and the sparsely-opulent cinematography by "True Detective's" Adam Arkapaw, should have made this a gut-wrenching powerhouse. Instead, we're left with a contrived facsimile of a soap opera.
Here's where the subjective part comes in. I don't have kids and I haven't fought in a war. Every bit of empathy I was supposed to summon for these characters was absent. Their turmoil felt alien to me in a way I just couldn't connect with, viscerally or emotionally. Maybe that means I'm a sociopath, or maybe this just wasn't for me.
"The Light Between Oceans"
Dir. Derek Cianfrance
Now playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX