Film Review: ‘The Light Between Oceans’ has class but falters the message of love

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light_between_oceans_ver3A film full of class, and one of the most aesthetically beautiful films to grace the screens this year, Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans” manages some tender and enchanting moments.  With that said, it stumbles and falters in certain executions of character motivation and generic story structure.  Cianfrance has performed remarkably well in his other two efforts (“Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines“) however, this is probably his weakest overall outing yet.

The Light Between Oceans” tells the story of Tom and Isabel, who live on a remote island.  Tom works as a lighthouse keeper, and is trying to come out of the horrors of World War I.  As the couple begin to find happiness in their solitude, their inability to have children begins to plague their fairy tale.  Isabel’s hopes and prayers are believed to be answered when a dead man and an infant baby girl wash ashore.  While Tom grapples with the reality of reporting the incident, or making the woman he loves happy, he ends up choosing the former, kicking into motion some heart wrenching consequences.

The high marks are present and littered frequently throughout. It begins with the heartbreaking turn from Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz as the devastating Hannah, a grief-stricken mother whose arc goes into interesting territories.  Michael Fassbender as the stoic and tortured Tom, has the actor showcasing another effortless and engaging presence that proves he’s got plenty more to offer the realm of cinema.

Co-star Alicia Vikander, recently just crowned for her riveting turn in Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl” earlier this year, is as capable as ever in portraying a difficult and unlikable character.  The problem is the script doesn’t particularly offer her an opportunity for the audience to tap into the soul of Isabel.  Her behavior at times is so despicable, it’s hard to wrap your head around any her actions and why she chooses to do them.  What’s worse, it that we can’t understand why her husband Tom would love someone like her.  It feels even at times, unnatural.  Everything from the inception of their love, to the finding of their baby, and the surrounding events that follow.

Technically, the romantic drama is wholeheartedly intact.  Composer Alexandre Desplat continues to deliver score after score, with strings and chords that tug at the heart.  Desplat’s choice of swells and subtlety are quite remarkable.  They are choices that can once again, land him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score.

the light between oceansCinematographer Adam Arkapaw (“Animal Kingdom” and “MacBeth”) glosses the screen with invigorating colors and breathtaking imagery.  When the word “class” is associated with any work of art, Arkapaw is the epitome of understanding in that regard.  He frames a scene with respect and adoration, fixating on the not so obvious objects and movements of a scene.  He allows us to travel graciously through the picture, enriching a methodical and lavish wonder of screen shots.

With all these great high points provided, there’s a very visible and apparent weakness in the script.  Constructed by Cianfrance, and adapted from the novel of the same name, he attempts to build a vivacious love story.  He gives us two people who he is saying to the audience are “meant for each other.”  Cianfrance ends up failing in establishing a believable and unique take on these two individuals from different walks of life.  Tom, a veteran and tortured man of war is drawn to the passion and energy of the young Isabel.  On paper, that can be sufficient but you must give the viewer motivation, action steps, and beats that prove the point you’re trying to make.  There’s an elephant sized hole in the house that our director and writer tries to build.

The writer/director truly fumbles in the final third of the film.  He chases ideas that are leisurely shoehorned in the story.  Cianfrance chases suspense, nostalgia, heartbreak, and resolution.  All of these things seem like they’re thrown together in a ten-minute scene reel.  The filmmaker also manages to go down “J. Edgar” territory of bad makeup, aging characters that end up just becoming beautiful distractions of their former selves.  There’s even an abrupt ending that manages to raise eyebrows.

Consequently, “The Light Between Oceans” doesn’t totally fail.  It’s ambitious but unbalanced, desperately attempting to make a modern-day John Cassavettes.  His fixation with love, and the dismal look at the reactions of people in a relationship is evident.  Perhaps in the future, he’ll put a much more focused effort on the sub-stories and actions that surround them.

The Light Between Oceans” is distributed by DreamWorks and opens in theaters on September 2, 2016.

GRADE: (★★½)

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  • Matt St.Clair

    Stinks it’s not that good. I toyed with the idea of seeing it because I’m a massive Michael Fassbender fan. But most of the reviews are pretty negative so I likely won’t waste my money.

    • I think you should see it. I think its interesting to see if anything, even if the failures are as evident as they are.

  • Ryan

    Even with stellar trailers for La La Land, Arrival and Manchester by the Sea in the last couple of weeks, this was probably still my most anticipated film of 2016. The critical reception is quite a bummer, but whats worse is there doesn’t seem to be a consistent standout among the trio. Looks like I’m gonna have to brace myself for the third act, too, but this project has too much potential for me to pass up.

  • Joey Magidson

    It’s a good film, just not the great one we were hoping for.

    • Knox Van Horn

      Shame, because the book is phenomenal

      • Joey Magidson

        I suspect if you love the book, this will be even better for you.