With The Light Between Oceans, Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) fancies himself both a ballerina and a first responder. The fine line between drippy sentimentality and earnest adult drama is a tightrope that Cianfrance tip-toes with all the testy bravado of Philippe Petie, loading his screen with moody tableaus of bereaved faces and decadent sealand landscapes. With great finesse, he probes the dour depths of the human spirit, framing a lurid moral no-no within a heartrending saga of romantic turmoil. Bottling the melancholy and adding pathos-laden Mentos until it erupts into a geyser of emotion, he applies the jaws of life to his audience, breaks open the collective chest cavity, steals your heart and tap dances all up on it.
A WWI veteran finds self-forgiveness in solitude in Cianfrance’s gorgeously photographed mood-piece-turned-tragic-romance. That man is Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) and by his own admission, his past wartime misdeeds deem him unworthy of love or decency. Life as he knows it is but an epilogue to the sanguinary Great War. He’s chosen to live its remainder out on the far flung island of Janus, as remote a place as can be aptly named after the two-faced God of new beginnings. There he operates a lighthouse to keep safe those at sea.
Tom’s plan for self-imposed hermitdom is interrupted by the forthcoming Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) who invites herself on a picnic with Tom not long before proposing they marry. A short stack of sappy (good sappy, not cornball sappy) correspondences later and the two are happily wed. Tom’s facade softens and Cianfrance smartly employs visually language to get at the cracks.
An early scene shared between the pair shows Tom in profile, staring outward at the sea, his face cast in shadow. The gloom stretches across Tom’s face confirms the darkness still swirling within him. In contrast, Isabel’s gentle features and broad smile are a hearth; cheating out to the camera, radiating, full of light, life and love. As Tom finally turns to Isabel and the light, hope materializes. For a moment, all is calm on the Western front.
A dreary series of miscarriages put stop to that hope and Cianfrance plants one of the film’s most painstaking sequences in a torrential storm only the likes of the sea-faring will know. The cinematography from emergent crackpot DP Adam Arkapaw (True Detective, Macbeth) is on point throughout – and Cianfrance affords him many a pensive gawk at nature’s inimitable beauty – layering the stormy narrative turbulence with adroit visual symmetry. Take for instance Vikander’s defeated march up to Tom’s lighthouse following her first miscarriage. Smeared in the gore of her lost child, shaky and stumbling from blood loss and maternal panic, she battles winds snapping like bullwhips, rain that pelts with the ferocity of old world lapidation. The imagery is as haunting as the nightmarish situation she’s found herself in.
When a rowboat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a crying baby, Isabel thinks their prayers have been answered. Tom is not convinced. In fact, his eyes communicate that he knows the path they choose to embark upon – passing the newborn off as an early surprise, hiding the evidence of their most recently deceased pre-baby – it will end in tragedy.
Throughout Vikander and Fassbender grapple with the highs and lows of their character’s emotion palette with the skill set of maestros. Fassbender’s hard face and aching peepers inject a degree of incredulity into the character’s most wily decision. When he makes that hard-lost moral concession to appease his grief-stricken wife, we’re witness to the likes of him receiving a Novocaine injection. Numbness washes like the harsh lap of coastal Australian currents. Tom’s arc is sour and Fassbender puckers well. His grief is richly drawn but his moments of great joy – infrequent though they are – are all the more gut wrenching for it.
Vikander, who won an Oscar last year for her performance in The Danish Girl (a statue that should have been issued for her role in Ex Machina), is an oil painting of plain-faced emotionality. Brushed with childish innocence, she runs the gamut of womanhood, transforming from a vivacious spirit to a hollow soul. Hers is a riff on postpartum depression; the blistering tragedy of a child denied. Isabel’s soul bruises like a peach and she wears the palpable scars with shame. Her acquisition of the biblical “baby in a basket” sets everything right, if only until a reckoning with the birth mother (Rachel Weisz) comes to bear. Vikander has her fair share of ugly crying – her pliable face screwed to pitiable shapes – but these Oscar Moments with a capital O and M are earned through thoughtful character development. Weisz, unsurprisingly, is also excellent.
With The Light Between Oceans, Cianfrance has completed his informal Sprawling Tragic Romance Trilogy that started with Blue Valentine in 2010. That breakout feature saw a never-better Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams swoon and spar over the course of a decade in one of the most raw depictions of love and heartbreak ever put to screen. His fascination with genealogy and the jagged passing of time continued with The Place Beyond the Pines which focused more on the confusing love shared between a lowlife father, his reluctant wife and their lost soul son. The Light Between Oceans similarly spans a number of years – something like 32 from start to finish – but settles comfortably into the moments of greatest passion. It takes a good storyteller to hone in on the defining moments of one’s life without descending to biographical collage narrative work. It’s not as coarse and unprocessed as Blue Valentine or as under pressure as Pines but Oceans is the work of a refined storyteller who a masterful command of his performers loosing his inhibitions and running wild with instinct.
Some may confuse what Cianfrance is doing as schmaltz but his exaggerated melodrama is grounded in a very real sense of the human experience. Those who find similarity to Nicholas Sparks’ endeavors mistake the masterful, nuanced storytelling at play in a Cianfrance tragedy. His challenge is to sell the narrative turns of M.L. Stedman’s best-selling novel, to make the character’s exaggerated choices – kidnapping, chief among them – seem consistent with motives of otherwise even-keeled characters. In that capacity, he has succeed mightily – even when the third act can’t keep steam with the charged pacing of the first two. From where I’m sitting, he is amongst the great American romantic directors of our time.
Backed by a feverish score from musical savant Alexander Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Argo), The Light Between Oceans is dripping with pathos so expect emotions to run high and the tears to come fast and loose. Pack your Kleenex.
CONCLUSION: A moody emulsion of chest-aching grief and sour recompense, ‘The Light Between Oceans’ is stick-to-your-ribs melodrama that’s powerfully acted and handsomely photographed. Through and through a tearful romance, this is either a movie that speaks to you or it doesn’t. For me, it sang.