The Light Between Oceans

Jake Richardson | 10/12/2016

Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans, adapted from M.L. Stedman’s blockbuster novel, is a heart-wrenchingly beautiful, well acted piece of overly long and indulgent cinematic fare

M.L. Stedman’s 2012 novel forms the basis for this period piece set in Australia in the early 20th century. It spent years on the bestseller list, but Cianfrance’s adaptation muddles the conversion slightly.

 The film follows Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a soldier who has returned to Australia after four years on the Western Front. Despite his single status, he takes a position as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock – a remote and desolate island, accessible only by boat from a small town. It is here that he meets the bold, vivacious young Isabel (Alicia Vikander) – a beautiful young woman who soon joins him on

Janus Rock as his wife. The years float by, and Isabel and Tom find themselves rocked by a pair of miscarriages. In the depths of their despair, they hear a baby’s cry floating in the wind. A boat has washed ashore on their island, with a dead man and his screaming baby the only passengers.


While Tom wants to immediately signal the mainland, Isabel convinces him to let her keep it. They bury the dead man, and assume the child as their own. However, in their repeated visits to the mainland, they discover that the true mother of the child still lives; wracked with grief over the loss of her child and husband. Tom and Isabel must decide how to deal with the conundrum; deny a mother her child, or lose their own chance at happiness.

Cianfrance, who received such rave reviews for Blue Valentine and, to a lesser extent, Place Beyond the Pines, turns his hand to melodrama for this piece, particularly in the second half. Stedman’s novel was always going to be tough to adapt, with its lengthy internal monologues, and Cianfrance certainly takes his time in the first half to try and convey these monologues without resorting to narration. One can see the pain and desperation for solitude in Fassbender’s eyes when Tom accepts the position at Janus Rock; the freedom and joy in Vikander’s face as she frolics on the beach after her first night on the island. And while it may be necessary here to linger on these two powerhouse actors, further into the piece the film’s insistence on long takes and introspective glances makes the 2 hour 13 minute movie feel too long.


The fact that sitting through The Light Between Oceans feels like such a lengthy chore is remarkable, given that a multitude of plot points feel under wrought, with not nearly enough time devoted to the emotional decision making process behind the insane choices of our main couple. Director Cianfrance successfully convinces with the love at first sight trope. It is thrust into the audiences face, but it works. However, his repeated dipping back into that well leaves us feeling disbelief.  It is such a sudden decision to take the child, such a sudden decision to leave a letter for the rightful mother, and an even more remarkably sudden decision to expose themselves at the beginning of the third act. The trail of events simply doesn’t make sense.


It is certainly an interesting use of Cianfrance’s talents. He has publicly described his attempt to cross two influences when it comes to the use of cinematography, with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s certainly giving us a remarkably beautiful picture of this desolate landscape. This duality is present throughout; from the switch from a deep romantic drama in the first half to a twist laden melodrama in the back half, or with the Malick-esque environmental montages to the Sirk-reminiscent ending. This jerkiness damages the film, which would have benefited from a more even tone.

The saving grace of the film, aside from the beautiful cinematography, are Fassbender and Vikander. They chew this material up and spit it out with a level of sheer emotion only achievable by these two heavyweight thesps. Whether it is Fassbender’s internal rage as Tom digs up his second-child’s gravestone, or Vikander’s shrieks as her baby is taken away from her, every line they speak (and they deliver their fair share of cheesy, cliché dialogue) is a reaffirmation of their status as two of the best actors of their generation. They feed off each others performance, and every minute with them is worthwhile for the intensity of their performance.


In the end, they can’t overcome some of the unevenness in the plotting of the film and directorial choices.


Fassbender and Vikander infuse this beautifully shot melodrama with the type of real emotion that only two of the best actors of the decade could produce, but they are let down by a meandering plot and interesting tonal shifts.