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The Light Between Oceans - DVD Review

The Light Between Oceans

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

A COMPLEX moral dilemma lies at the heart of Derek Cinefrance’s The Light Between Oceans, which grips emotionally without tugging at the heart-strings as tear-jerkingly as it might.

Adapted by Cinefrance from the novel by ML Stedman, the film boasts two predictably intense performances from Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, as well as some stunning cinematography. But while compelling, it ultimately lacks the emotional wallop you may have been expecting.

Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a young Australian ex-serviceman in 1919, who is struggling to come to terms with his experiences of war. Seeking solitude, he takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on the beautiful, remote island of Janus Rock – but doesn’t count on attracting the romantic attentions of the beautiful Isabel Graysmark (Vikander).

After a fleeting courtship, they marry and set up home on Janus Rock, where they are happy. But their efforts to have children end in two miscarriages, which leave Isabel emotionally devastated.

But just as all hope of parenthood seems lost, a rowing boat washes up with a dead man aboard and a tiny, crying baby. Tom wants to report it, but sensing an opportunity, Isabel pleads with him not to so that they can raise the child themselves.

Tom reluctantly agrees, mindful of Isabel’s torment, but a couple of years later happens upon the infant’s real mother (Rachel Weisz), still mourning the loss of her baby and husband. Faced with a no-win decision, Tom must make the most difficult decision of his life.

As he has previously shown with his screenplays for Blue Valentine and A Place Beyond The Pines, Cinefrance is very efficient at navigating complex family tales that pose as many challenging questions for their viewers as they do their own characters.

But while those two prior films genuinely resonated, The Light Between Oceans sometimes feels trapped by the confines of its book, making the storytelling appear episodic (there are several time jumps that feel rushed).

The fact that the tale also unfolds largely from Tom’s perspective also poses a problem (for me at least), given that it creates the suspicion that it may have hit harder had it been told from Isabel’s. It’s a shortcoming made arguably more apparent by the insular, often monosyllabic nature of Tom’s character, which requires Fassbender to channel a lot of his own torment silently.

Fassbender does supremely well in the role, maintaining the decency inherent in his character throughout, while conveying the heart-breaking nature of his dilemma in typically engaging fashion. But Oscar winner Vikander (she won for The Danish Girl) sometimes isn’t afforded the space to shine that her own turmoil perhaps deserves… she’s great at conveying the anguish of child loss but is given less time to really develop a passionate chemistry with Tom, or a mother-daughter bond with her ‘child’. Again, the episodic nature of proceedings doesn’t help.

That being said, it would be a hard heart that isn’t touched in some way by the tragedies underpinning the story, especially given the strength of its performances. While Cinefrance directs in such a way that the emotions seldom feel contrived or manipulated, while his use of location is often stunning, making full use of his natural locations to convey both the calm and beauty of Tom and Isabel’s happiness, or the stormy turmoil of their inner conflict and loss.

The Light Between Oceans is therefore a flawed but nonetheless engaging experience, buoyed by exceptional performances, that still provides plenty for audiences to engage with.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 2hrs 13mins
UK Blu-ray & DVD Release: March 13, 2017