When World War I-numbed Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) takes the job of lighthouse keeper on the otherwise unoccupied Janus Rock off the western coast of Australia, 100 miles from the nearest human contact, the isolation is just what the veteran is looking for to salve his survivor’s guilt and other residual emotional scars. But on the way to the craggy island, he meets Isabel Graysmark (Vikander), who recognizes the warmth hidden behind his battle-fatigued eyes, and makes overtures toward the stranger during a family dinner. After an afternoon picnic the next day, an epistolary courtship ensues. In short order, they marry and Isabel moves to the island with Tom to begin their married life and start a family. The couple’s trouble begins after two miscarriages occur, followed by a dinghy washing up onshore with a dead man and a living infant inside. It seems like the answer to their prayers, but the precipitous decision to claim the child as their own and not report the discovery of the dead man is the beginning of the end, despite an idyll of four years before their deception comes to light.
The film is based on a novel by M.L. Stedman, although it’s a story Nicholas Sparks is probably jealous he didn’t write himself. The moral dilemma at the crux of the story is what makes it interesting, and good choices were made in the casting of Fassbender and Vikander, he so deft at playing men suffering silently from inner turmoil and she so emotively open-faced. Despite this, we fail to connect with the characters in any deep, emotional way. The film is so decorous that it keeps us at a remove, with Adam Arkapaw’s beautiful cinematography of the natural landscape and Alexandre Desplat’s patently lovely musical score substituting the trappings of emotion for the real thing.
It’s easy to see how the story’s moral quagmire is what attracted director and scriptwriter Derek Cianfrance to this project for his debut as a studio filmmaker. Blue Valentine, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in an artful study of a deteriorating marriage, and the narratively ambitious The Place Beyond the Pines set Cianfrance apart as an indie investigator into the foibles of love. His new film, however, lacks the raw sparks that set his previous films ablaze. Instead, like its title, The Light Between the Oceans is neither here nor there. The high-art appurtenances of the period romance overwhelm the story’s potboiler elements, leaving us with a Janus-faced product that peers in both directions but remains uninvolved.
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