Friday, September 2, 2016

'The Light Between Oceans' Is Pretty But Turgid

This review originally appeared on

The Light Between Oceans, adapted by writer and director Derek Cianfrance from the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, is an old-fashioned romantic tragedy filled with fateful events, bad choices, and really pretty people walking around really pretty scenery.
Michael Fassbender stars as World War I vet Tom Sherbourne, who returns to Australia and accepts a job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the western coast. He's a moody and tight-lipped man who is dealing with some obvious post-war angst, so a lonely island is just what the doctor ordered.

Tom easily catches the eye of the lovely Isabel (Alicia Vikander) during a visit to the mainland. She's a smart, happy, and forward young woman who basically takes the reins, asking Tom on a date and then essentially proposing to him a few hours later. But, it being 1918, no marriage can actually take place until those two exchange several turgid letters to each other over the course of several months.

Once wed, Isabel joins Tom on Janus, and while their isolated island is an Eden at first — there is no limit to the number of shots that include glistening waves, vivid sunsets, and the swaying fields of grass that surround their home — things turn terrible when pregnancy enters the picture. Childbirth was an already a dangerous experience back then, but toss in a complete lack of any immediate medical care, and anything but the most complication-free pregnancy is a potential for tragedy. And it's just such a tragedy Isabel and Tom must face. Twice.

So when a healthy baby shows up on their shores shortly after Isabel's second miscarriage, it seems to Isabel to be nothing but fate. She urges Tom not to report it, and to raise the baby as their own. Who would know?

Of course, things don't turn out so happily ever after. A few years later, during another visit to the mainland, a grieving widow (Rachel Weisz) catches Tom's attention. And therein lies one of the movie's main problems: Tom is such a cypher that we never really understand his motivations — or lack thereof — or why he's so haunted. Isabel clearly wears the pants in the relationship, and, as a uniquely forthright and determined young woman in the early 1920's, is a much more interesting character to center a movie on. But instead, we see the story primarily through Tom's passive eyes.

The film is, of course, beautiful to look at, with lots of shots of the good looking leads in their lovely lace dresses and manly woolen sweaters as they walk through the rugged landscapes. Fassbender and Vikander both do the best they can with the material at hand, and if you sense a real sense of chemistry between them, it's probably because the couple fell in love while making the film. Weisz is also very compelling in a role that requires her to spend a lot of time crying.

And sure, I'll admit to shedding some tears myself by the end of the movie. But it was an almost involuntary reaction, like jumping when something leaps out in a horror movie, or burping after drinking a big gulp of beer. There were tears on my cheeks, but I wasn't feeling a thing.

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