“THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS” My rating: C+
132 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
There’s a world of weeping on display in “The Light Between Oceans.”
The good news is that most of the sobbing is done by Alicia Vikander. If you’ve got to stare for two hours at a tear-stained face, it might as well be that of this Oscar-winning actress. She makes suffering almost transcendent.
The not-so-good news is that in making its transition from best seller to big screen, M.L. Stedman’s story has lost a good deal of its power.
For all the lacerating emotions displayed by Vikander and co-stars Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz, relatively little of it is experienced by the viewer.
What was deeply moving on the printed page seems mechanically melodramatic when dramatized. You want to be moved, but can’t shake the feeling that mostly you’re being manipulated.
After four years in the trenches of World War I, Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) returns to his native Australia a hollow man. Seeking solitude and time to rediscover himself, he signs up as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Island, a windswept hunk of rock 100 miles from the nearest coast.
But he won’t be alone for long. In one of the most satisfying passages in Derek Cianfrance’s film, he meets, woos and weds Isabel (Vikander), a local girl who seems to relish life on the island. Their’s is a civilization of two…the only thing that could make it better would be a baby to share the experience.
Fate has other plans. Isabel suffers a miscarriage (during a hurricane, no less) and later gives birth to a stillborn child. Things are looking pretty glum.
And then a rowboat floats in on the tide. Inside is a dead man and a baby girl.
Tom intends to report this event to the mainland. But Isabel begs him to wait. The baby is a gift from providence.
So against his better judgment, Tom secretly buries the man and reports that his wife has given birth to a little girl. They call her Lucy.
Several years pass and all is paradisical on Janus Island.
But on a rare trip to the mainland, Tom spots Hannah (Weisz) mourning in the churchyard. She’s at a grave memorializing her dead husband and daughter, both lost at sea at the same time Lucy’s rowboat washed ashore.
Tom tries to keep a lid on his dark secret. Yet he’s a man of conscience, and it’s killing him. Lucy has a biological mother, and to let her go on mourning is inhuman. But, then, so is snatching young Lucy out of Isabel’s arms.
The ethical dilemma is real and immediate. The acting is convincing. The setting is both stark and beautiful (cinematographer Adam Arkapaw does things with tides and seascapes I’ve never seen before).
In fact, there’s nothing particularly wrong with “The Light Between the Oceans.” Nothing except that this viewer felt he was watching the story unfold from afar rather than truly experiencing it.
Writer/director Cianfrance has had a couple of modest hits at the “arty” end of the film spectrum with “Blue Valentine” and “A Place Beyond the Pines” (both starring Ryan Gosling). Here he’s working with a mainstream property and a much broader palette — and his usual intensity is missing.
Perhaps we should rack this one up to the inherent limitations of film when compared to literature. Fine writing can finesse clunky plotting; transferred to the much more literal world of film, that clunkiness stands front and center.
| Robert W. Butler