Derek Cianfrance is a man of tragedy. His debut film, Blue Valentine, chronicled the devastating collapse of a marriage and his second film, The Place Beyond the Pines, explored the repercussions of a criminal’s exploits in order to provide for his (newly discovered) son’s future. I’ve over-simplifying for certain.
Regardless, Cianfrance’s third film is also a tragedy of sorts, but with certain joy to be found. The film begins as Tom (Michael Fassbender), a hardened World War I veteran, seeks exile as a lighthouse keeper as his attempt to isolate himself and struggle to comprehend the horrors of war. He feels guilt for his survival when so many had died. During his brief visits to the coast, he falls in love with Isabel (Alicia Vikander), a woman that Wikipedia describes simply as “a local girl”. He falls in love with her innocence and the two begin to write letters to each other while he is away at Janus Rock, the island where the lighthouse is situated. The gesture of writing letters is romantic and these scenes depict both the two writing the letters and reading the responses, their faces brightening in ecstasy as the two fall in love.
In time the couple is married and Isabel comes to live with Tom at Janus Rock. Their love turns passionate, but they discover that Isabel is not able to bear a child. She loses two pregnancies as miscarriages, an unusual amount of dramatic weight for a PG-13 film, Cianfrance making no effort to hide the helplessness that Tom and Isabel feel as they cannot save their children.
Just as it seems that the couple loses hope of raising a child, Tom notices a dingy while he is at the lighthouse. He yells to Isabel and the two run to the shore where they find a dead man and a baby girl. Isabel convinces Tom to take the baby as their own and not report the incident. They name the girl Lucy (Florence Clery). Once the two return to Isabel’s home, Lucy is christened; however, Tom discovers that a man and baby had gone missing the same time he found his baby girl. He sees the mother, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), kneeling in front of her husband and daughter’s grave. His guilt overcoming him, Tom writes to Hannah anonymously but he is soon found out and reported, in partial to his relief he no longer has to bear guilt. Tom is imprisoned and takes full responsibility for not returning Lucy to her mother. Because of the religious duty of a wife to her husband, Isabel is not held accountable for keeping Lucy.
Lucy returns to Hannah, and Hannah is adamant about convincing Lucy to love her as her mother. However, Lucy, not remembering Hannah, is distraught by being away from Tom and Isabel and refuses to regard Hannah as her mother. Hannah eventually contacts Isabel and informs her that she recognizes that Lucy loved her as her mother and believes she should not separate the child from her ‘mother’. Hannah tells Isabel that she can raise Lucy as her own if she lets Tom go to trial, Hannah believing that Isabel followed the orders of her husband in not reporting the discovery of the dingy and returning the child. Isabel is left with the choice to choose the baby or to choose Tom, knowing that if she chooses Tom and confessed that it was her desire to keep the baby she would face punishment as well.
The Light Between Oceans features remarkable performances from its leads. At times, Fassbender broods perhaps a little much, although his past in the Great War can be attributed for the reason why. His hardened exterior appears less receptive to vulnerability than fellow Cianfrance favorite Ryan Gosling, but Fassbender and Cianfrance accept the challenge of expressing sensitivity through Fassbender’s character. His character’s struggle to express emotions in romantic circumstances reminds me of a bit of Fassbender’s character in Shame, but also Theodore Twombly in Her. From Cianfrance’s comments on The Light Between Oceans, Fassbender’s character experiences a character arc, but this arc is only conveyed slightly within the film: “This movie is about when you’re an individual, and having a partner who unlocks parts of you and make you a better person” (notably, Cianfrance expressed the opposite in Blue Valentine). Perhaps flashbacks of him during the war would better guide us through the complexes of his character.
The Light Between Oceans is like a classical novel in terms of the detail given to set design and the remarkable innocence of its characters. It harkens back to a simpler time where religion and higher ideals held a notable influence on, if not determined, the course of one’s actions rather than the unpredictably of a post-existential world. The film seems to arise from a nostalgic perception of the past, a simpler time, and its dainty, piano-centric soundtrack from Alexandre Desplat makes the film appear as if it were released much earlier than 2016; rarely anymore do we hear a soundtrack that relies so heavily on the piano.
Cianfrance’s latest offering might not offer itself to analysis the way Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines does, but the film succeeds in that it is difficult to see those torn by the consequences of their good-willing actions. Like in Cianfrance’s earlier films, we know his characters have a story beyond the ending of his films (much like the open-ended conclusions to many a novel), although what this story’s ending might be is far less ambiguous. Perhaps for that reason, The Light Between Oceans seems to be a less profound offering from Cianfrance.