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The soul of any melodramatic film is how well we are convinced by the performances. No matter the contrivance of the plot or the manipulative direction, if the characters feels authentic we are far more easily able to become invested in their journey. Think of The Notebook (2004), arguably the best example of a cheesy, clichéd romance made watchable by two genuine leads. The Light Between Oceans works hard to be a contender for crowing in the genre but falls short despite some solid acting.
We meet Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a WWI vet who now works as light house keeper at Janus Rock in Western Australia. He meets and falls in love with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), a local girl whom he soon marries. They aim to raise a family but Isabel miscarries twice in nearly as many years and the two began to think they’ve lost all hope for children. Almost on queue, Tom comes upon a small rowboat beached on the shores of the island. Isabel and Tom find a dead man inside but also a baby girl. While Tom thinks the orphanage is the proper place to bring the small child, Isabel believes they should raise the girl, passing her off as their own. Unwilling at first, Tom relents and “Lucy” becomes their daughter.
Their scheme almost seems like the perfect ploy, and even Tom quickly falls in love with the infant. They finally have a family, something they feared was impossible. But of course, there is a history to why that child was found in a boat with a dead man, and when Tom discovers that Lucy’s real mother, named Hannah (Rachel Weisz), is not only still alive, but nearby, often grieving at the grave of her lost family, things take a sharp turn. Racked with guilt, Tom wrestles with what to do. Decisions are made and hearts are broken.
Directed by Derek Cianfrance, The Light Between Oceans (based on the novel of the same name by M. L. Stedman) doesn’t mask its intent, boldly embracing its melodrama like a badge of courage. This is big sweeping soap-style entertainment designed to coax as much emotional drainage it can and for some of it, if that is what you’re looking for, it works. Fassbeneder, who is becoming this generation’s Gary Oldman, able to morph into a surprising collection of diverse characters, is very effective, and carries the full weight of this tearjerker. Given the material and script, he does an admirable job, though that’s not to say the women, who are the heart of the story, are lacking. Weisz, who is a remarkably consistent actor that is always a joy to watch, and Vikander, a fiercely good talent that has yet to stumble on screen, are equally gripping. These are three very convincing performances. It’s just they are in a film that revels in its high drama, weakened by over reliance on flashbacks, swelling orchestral cues, forced dialogue, and too many contrivances.
To be sure though, it’s a beautiful film to watch. Cianfrance keeps our attention with an interesting what-will-he-do? plot, and Adam Arkapaw‘s cinematography is breathtaking, which fortunately gets a lot of opportunity to shine. While it paints in broad strokes and signals its manipulations with easy-to-follow markers, it might appeal to those looking to shed some tears for the sake of drama.
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Writers: Derek Cianfrance (written for the screen by), M.L. Stedman (novel)
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
Genre: Romance, Drama