When it comes to motion pictures, sometimes beautiful is not enough. Bringing two of the world’s most attractive (and talented) actors together in a gorgeous Australian setting seems like a recipe for something really special. Throw in a story adapted from a popular novel and you have all the ingredients for a remarkable cinematic experience; right? Not necessarily it seems. That is not to say that The Light Between Oceans is particularly bad, it perhaps just suffers from the weight of expectation given the casting of Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander as the couple whose life on an otherwise uninhabited island is irrevocably changed when a boat washes ashore. Set in Western Australia in the early years of the 20th century, this latest offering from Derek Cianfrance represents a distinct change of pace for a director whose previous films (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) have been embedded very much in the contemporary world.
Having survived World War I physically, if not psychologically, intact, Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on the remote (fictional) island of Janus Rock, situated somewhere off the coast of Western Australia. Although revelling in the solitude, Tom finds himself drawn to Isabel Graysmark (Vikander), a young woman he meets on the mainland prior to taking up his appointment. The two communicate via correspondence and, sure enough, it isn’t long before they marry, Isabel joins Tom on the island and a montage of their blissful life together ensues; frolicking on the beach, fucking and moustache trimming just some of the fun they share. However, when their efforts to have children end in disaster, Isabel seems on the verge of a breakdown until, low and behold, their prayers are answered when a boat washes ashore with a dead man and a squawking baby on board. They keep the baby (which they name Lucy) and everything is perfect again, for a while at least. Enter Hannah Roennfeldt (Weisz) – a woman mourning the loss of her husband and child at sea – and things become much more complicated.
It is the 2012 book of the same name by ML Stedman on which the film is based that is actually the biggest problem with the film because the story is, quite frankly, pretty preposterous. The actions of the characters are difficult to accept and, despite the best efforts of Cianfrance and a quality cast, which includes Rachel Weisz and the likes of local legends in Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown and Garry McDonald, it is difficult to swallow what transpires. Described, fairly accurately in fact, by more than one person as a cross between Nicholas Sparks and Shakespeare, the disappointment lies in the fact that it is much more the former. It is hard to reconcile the fact that an Irishman and a Swede were cast as these two Australian characters, but no doubt the decision is about box office rather than any lack of faith in local talent. As it is, Thompson probably has the best role in the film as the jocular boatie who transports people and supplies between Janus Rock and the mainland. Sure, the character is really just Thompson playing Thompson, but at least he brings some levity to proceedings in a world where everybody else seems so angry.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that The Light Between Oceans is terrible, but it is most certainly a sentimental, overwrought, emotionally extravagant melodrama that many will find insufferable. Shot in Tasmania and New Zealand – perhaps Western Australia just didn’t look enough like Western Australia – the landscape is beautiful and whilst the cinematography from Adam Arkapaw romanticises the isolation of the island, the incessant lens flairs became a running joke and, subsequently, a distraction. The appearance of the adult Lucy in the final moments of the film serves as a reminder of what the film might have been had Cianfrance (who also wrote the screenplay) opted for a different approach to the story. Whilst Fassbender and Vikander are fine in the leads, the usually reliable Weisz delivers a one-note performance as Hannah that prevents you from having much sympathy at all for the tragedy she has endured. Romantics will no doubt love it, but The Light Between Oceans is unlikely to appeal to anybody who demands logic and common sense in their period dramas.