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Non-Review Review: The Light Between Oceans

There are times when The Light Between Oceans almost makes sense.

At certain moments in the film’s two-hour-plus runtime, the clouds part and the sky clears. In these fleeting seconds, it becomes clear what The Light Between Oceans is trying to do and what it wants to be about. A beacon seems to shine through the film, reaching out to the audience and guiding them towards the heart of the film. There are moments when things seem to align and The Light Between Oceans almost gels into the melodramatic morality play to which it aspires, much like the withdrawing might reveal some hidden treasure.

All at sea.

All at sea.

Inevitably, the tide comes rushing back in. The Light Between Oceans becomes cluttered and clumsy. The film aspires to be a profound commentary on grand themes like loss and responsibility, a story about love and forgiveness. However, the narrative is clunky. The film strives for a moral weight that it never quite manages to attain, contorting its narrative and characters in strange directions that serve vague notions while undercutting a sense of coherence.

The Light Between Oceans might consider itself to be the stoic and restrained lighthouse keeper at its core, a character who tries his best to be the moral centre as the sea tosses and the heaven rages around him. Unfortunately, it feels more like the rowing boat discovered towards the end of the first act, one lost and adrift, driven not by purpose but contrivance.

Somewhere... beyond the sea...

Somewhere… beyond the sea…

As with The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance constructs a story about children and guilt, about trauma and legacy. The Place Beyond the Pines was a work of breathless ambition that never quite pulled together in the way that it needed to, but with enough audacity to endear itself. The film’s narrative clumsiness was almost endearing, as if the film were flying by the seat of its proverbial pants. In contrast, The Light Between Oceans lacks that same flair and imagination. It is a much more generic narrative, which makes its miscalculations more devastating.

The Light Between Oceans clearly aspires towards a sense of profundity. It is a tale set in the wake of the First World War, about a veteran who becomes a lighthouse keeper. He falls in love with a girl from the mainland, who follows him out to the remote island where they can be alone together, guiding ships through the darkness and finding a place in the world. However, this idyllic existence cannot last. Real life soon intrudes upon this little isolated corner of the map.

Leave a light(house) on for me...

Leave a light(house) on for me…

As the film unfolds, the couple find themselves facing tragedy and confronted with moral choices that have lasting consequences. The Light Between Oceans positions itself as a period piece melodrama. It is not too hard to imagine a less visually impressive adaptation with a less starry cast playing on BBC or ITV. This is a tale about buried passions and gnawing guilt set against a remote landscape almost a century past. Indeed, some shots seem almost lifted from a prestigious BBC adaptation; Michael Fassbender walking to the lighthouse, long coat billowing in the storm.

The Light Between Oceans is visually impressive. Whatever problems exist with the film’s narrative and script, Cianfrance certainly has an eye for beauty. The rugged little island in the middle of nowhere genuinely looks like a piece of heaven that has fallen to Earth, and Cianfrance conveys a sense of the fantasy that his two leads are living. There are some wonderful sweeping establishing shots, most notably early in the film as the camera takes the audience to the island by flying through the steam trail from the transport ship.

A close shave.

A close shave.

Unfortunately, the story just doesn’t work. The Light Between Oceans very clearly has a set of tense moral decisions for its characters’ to navigate, tough choices that deal with profound questions about justice and fate, retribution and forgiveness. However, the film has no idea how to reach these tough questions in an organic manner. So the plot bends and twists, relying on all manner of contrivances to justify this set-up. The characters might credit the hand of God at work, but the hand of the writer intrudes far too readily and obviously.

Character motivations are subject to whims and fancy, with characters making strange decisions that run counter to the narrative build. Fate conspires like some sort of moral Rube Goldberg Machine to line up all the moving parts to ensure maximum melodrama, never minding how improbable it seems and how forced the resulting collisions must feel. Flashbacks about the importance of forgiveness are followed by left-field scenes about retributive justice. Things happen at just the right moment for maximum impact.

The lighthouse that love built.

The lighthouse that love built.

If The Light Between Oceans were a more graceful film, this would not matter. Melodrama is always heightened and frequently absurd, but the best melodramas have a certain elegance. The Light Between Oceans lacks any such sense of nuance or subtlety. When a detail is to be important later – like a date or a prop – Cianfrance focuses upon it with a distracting intensity. There are points at which The Light Between Oceans seems to point neon arrows at what might be important later. The key to tragedy is inevitability, but The Light Between Oceans makes it feel like blunt force.

The cast are largely lost in all of this. The Light Between Oceans is graced with a fantastic cast, who are largely responsible for the few moments of lucidity that the film can attain. Michael Fassbender is stoic and reserved, a simmering pot of repressed emotion that seems to well up. Unfortunately given the absurdity unfolding around him, he seems to have wandered into the wrong film. Alicia Vikkander captures a raw emotional power that holds some of her scenes together, but is also hobbled by her own character’s inconsistencies. Rachel Weisz feels underused.

Very deep, very blue sea...

Very deep, very blue sea…

The Light Between Oceans is not strong enough to guide its story to port.

4 Responses

  1. Another Fassbender review, thank you darren!

  2. Hi, I haven’t seen the film yet but I read the book the last month and It was better than I expected, It liked me very much, I recommend you to read It. The film probably can’t show all the characters feelings and thoughts. Thanks for your review.

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