The Light Between Oceans
3 out of 4 stars
by Bayard Lewis
In a tale of love and loss, Michael Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a veteran of World War I who has returned home to settle down to a life of self-seclusion on Janus island as a lighthouse keeper. At first he resists the romantic gestures of Isabel (Alicia Vikander) a woman on the mainland who tries to peel away the dispassionate outward expression that Tom wears.
Within five minutes of the opening it’s clear that the cinematography creates a rich world, capturing natural light and the emotional waves of the two leads. The seaside environment provides bursts of color during sunsets that are rare among the films mostly subdued color palette. Beyond the artistry in the camera work, the film’s greatest strength is the ability of the Fassbender and Vikander to contain so much in their expressions. Fassbender has a soulfulness behind his eyes, an inner world that conveys much of the character’s struggle for normalcy. Vikander takes us through the throes of love and pain as she becomes a mother. At times we both pity her and wish that she could overcome her torment.
While back on the island, they begin exchanging letters and Tom allows his heart to open to Isabel. They wed with the understanding that Tom will continue his post on the island and they will build a family there together. The story took too much time getting to the second act, where Tom and Isabel try several times to have children and are grief stricken by multiple miscarriages. After the second miscarriage, a baby in a boat washes ashore and they decide to keep the child, after Isabel convinces Tom that ‘we’re not doing anything wrong’. This sets into motion something that will haunt them in the future.
The timeless themes of love and heartbreak are explored in a somewhat predictable framework, where they will face consequences for bringing a child into their family that did not belong to them. It almost feels modeled after a classic Greek myth.
“The Light Between Oceans” is a slow drama, the kind of film you need to be in the right emotional space to appreciate. Its beauty and nuanced performances are worthy of the right audience, but be prepared wait for nearly an hour to experience the central conflict. The story takes extra time to unfold the feelings of its protagonists and leads to an ending that pulls the heart in multiple directions at once.