Film review: The Light Between Oceans

David Gritten / 01 November 2016

Saga film critic David Gritten finds the romantic melodrama The Light Between Oceans a moving experience.

You won’t see a better-looking film all year than The Light Between Oceans, a period melodrama set mainly on a small remote Australian island dominated by a lighthouse. It’s a ravishing piece of work, all spectacular views, stormy seas, and winds blowing through the island’s grass. The two leads, Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender, are themselves appropriately beautiful.

Thanks to the excellent work of director Derek Ciafrance (Blue Valentine), it all looks almost too good to be true, and it’s no surprise that eventually there’s trouble in paradise.

The story is set in the aftermath of the Great War, and Fassbender’s Tom is an ex-soldier, wearied and traumatised by combat, and looking for a peaceful existence. In a coastal village he applies for and lands the job of lighthouse keeper on the island, a position that means he may not see other people for weeks on end. But before he departs he meets Isabel, a spirited, attractive young woman in the village. They marry and set off to the lighthouse together.

They’re blissfully happy from the outset and Tom regains his sense of self. But their attempts to have children are cruelly frustrated by a series of miscarriages. A miraculous way out is presented to them when a small boat washes ashore with a dead man inside and a crying baby only two months old. Isabel wants to say nothing and raise the infant as their own; Tom has misgivings and favours reporting the incident, but backs down to placate his grieving wife.

The film, adapted by Ciafrance from M.L. Stedman’s novel, thus sets up a moral dilemma for audiences. By this point, we earnestly wish Tom and Isabel to be happy: but at what cost? It’s fair to say some of the subsequent events are improbable, but the two lead actors throw themselves so eagerly into their roles that one feels emotionally vested in their well-being.  There are no bad people in this story, which somehow makes it all the more gut-wrenching.

This is such a strong, earnest film that it’s possible to watch fully aware that your emotions are being manipulated, but succumbing to it anyway. Fassbender and Vikander make a terrific on-screen couple, and their love scenes are given extra power from the knowledge that they’re partners in real life. There’s a splendid supporting cast: the always excellent Rachel Weisz as a woman in the village, and some fine Australian actors in smaller parts, including Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson.

In many ways this is a somewhat old-fashioned film, carried along by the sheer conviction of everyone involved. Some critics have cited the work of Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) as a useful comparison, and I wouldn’t disagree. The Light Between Oceans certainly has its imperfections, yet it can take you by surprise too: for many audiences, the hardest job will be blinking back the tears sufficiently to see all that beauty on the screen.  

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