Derek Cianfrance, 133 mins, starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
Melodramas don’t come any more torrid than The Light Between Oceans. This is a love story with a very dark undertow. Its characters are put through the emotional wringer, made to endure bereavement and betrayal alongside their snatched moments of happiness. The film takes its tone from Alexandre Desplat’s swirling musical score.
The storyline, heavily reliant on coincidence and unashamedly sentimental, could have seemed very trite but writer-director Derek Cianfrance approaches the material as if this is full-blown Shakespearean tragedy. He is helped by powerhouse performances from Fassbender and Vikander.
The film begins just after the First World War. Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a taciturn but very dignified war veteran who can’t understand why he survived when so many of his colleagues died in the trenches. He has applied for a job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the coast of Western Australia.
Isabel (Vikander) is the young woman he meets briefly on the mainland just before his first stint on the island. Her family, like those of everyone else in the community, has suffered badly in the war. She has lost two brothers. She is impulsive and a little reckless, persuading Tom to marry her so she can share his life on the island, where they live entirely alone.
Tom is damaged goods, a deeply repressed and guilt-ridden man who has very little expectation of achieving any happiness. He is also dutiful and fundamentally decent.
When Tom and Isabel are dropped off on the island, you begin to wonder just where the drama can come from. Gradually, with Isabel’s love, Tom comes out of his shell. At least initially, they are very content on the island. She becomes pregnant. We know, though, that their happiness won’t last long. Everything begins to change on the night of a mighty storm.
This is filmed in bravura, bone-rattling fashion by Cianfrance. In the wake of the storm comes grief and death. Tom and Isabel take a very fateful decision which they hope will bring them the domestic bliss they crave.
At times, as Tom is pushed to act against his own nature by his wife, the film seems like an early 1920s counterpart to Macbeth. Fassbender has relatively few lines but his face is a landscape of seething moral anguish and guilt. Vikander brings a mercurial intensity to her role as the young woman prepared to take reckless decisions in her desire to become a mother.
They seem to have got away with their plan but Tom’s chance encounter on the mainland with a grief-stricken widow (Weisz), whose German husband disappeared at sea along with her tiny daughter, threatens to bring their world crashing down.
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At times, Cianfrance startles us with the sheer bleakness of his vision. Costume dramas don’t normally delve into such raw and painful areas. The writer-director is shameless, too, in the way he manipulates the audience with some very contrived plot twists. In its final reel, the film risks becoming very maudlin.
There are scenes here that make the most lachrymose TV movie weepie seem restrained by comparison. Nonetheless, you can’t help but admire the film’s full blown approach. The emotional storms and tempests here are of a velocity that easily matches anything Tom sees from his lighthouse keeper’s perch.
The Light Between Oceans was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival. It hits UK cinemas 4 November.
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