It would be easy to dismiss The Light Between Oceans as melodramatic mush. The accusation is true, but with excellent performances from Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender, plus superb direction from Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines), this adaptation of M L Stedman’s novel is absolutely first-rate melodramatic mush. In fact, it’s a hugely effective weepie that tugs at heartstrings with ruthless dexterity.
I don’t really want to say too much about the plot, suffice to say it begins with World War I veteran Tom (Fassbender) accepting a post maintaining a lighthouse at a remote island off the west coast of Australia. Feeling the need for solitude, the introverted Tom thinks the posting will be an ideal place for him to recuperate following the ordeal of the trenches. However, before he gets to go to the island he meets the comely Isabel (Vikander), who is immediately attracted to him. A familiar romantic road is followed at first. Then the film takes darker turns that I don’t want to spoil here, suffice to say they absolve the film of being easily dismissed as a chocolate box love story.
Within five minutes, I had fallen in love with the landscapes/seascapes. Within ten minutes, I had fallen in love with Alicia Vikander’s Isabel. Within twenty minutes I had fallen in love with the film. And two hours later, the film had broken my heart. Yes, I’m a complete sucker for this kind of thing. Yes, it is sentimental beyond belief, but said sentimentality is undercut by the afore-mentioned dark turns. Besides, this is the kind of film you come to in order to be put through a properly traumatic emotional wringer. It provides catharsis and makes one feel alive in the same way a good horror film does. To me, weepies and horror films are like two sides of the same coin.
Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender (two of my current obsessions) are ably supported by Rachel Weisz in a key role. Cianfrance’s splendid use of locations, plus the gorgeous cinematography by Adam Arkapaw reminded me of that earthy, dirt-under-the-fingernails aesthetic of John Schlesinger’s criminally underrated 1967 take on Far from the Madding Crowd. The sound design is also worthy of special mention, with ever present howling winds and lashing seas adding to an exceptionally atmospheric piece that is beautifully enhanced by Alexandre Desplat’s lush music score.
There are a few moments where the plot becomes too contrived for its own good. And just to nit pick, one point where the film eschews Desplat’s score in favour of Funeral Canticle by John Tavener felt misjudged, purely because that piece of music, for me, is so indelibly connected to Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life. In the epic romance stakes, this perhaps doesn’t quite scale the impossible heights of Brief Encounter, Doctor Zhivago or The English Patient, but then again, what does? Such shortcomings are easily overlooked given the raw, heartfelt passion on display here. It is also worth mentioning that there are some very positive Christian viewpoints inherently endorsed by the story, regarding the importance and power of forgiveness, how the truth can set you free, and so on.
For genre snobs and cynics, The Light Between Oceans may well be dismissed as a ludicrously overheated blunt instrument. But it’s a very effective blunt instrument, one that satisfyingly ticks the kind of boxes you want ticked in this kind of story. I’m not ashamed to say I loved it.