Here it is, 2016, and Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance dares to make another film dealing almost entirely with qualities some modern viewers think of as kryptonite: emotions. What a radical concept. But a movie that deals in emotions doesn’t necessarily mean that audiences will be moved emotionally.
The Light Between Two Oceans stars Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz; Cianfrance has done his own screenplay adaptation from the best-selling 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman. The book is a haunting heart-crusher set after World War I in remote Western Australia, centering on a battle-weary ex-soldier turned solitary lighthouse keeper named Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) and his fiery, loving new young wife Isabel (Vikander) as they cope in different ways with utter isolation and a growing sense of emptiness after failing repeatedly to have a child. With Isabel in the throes of depression, a rowboat washes ashore. On it is an infant baby girl, alive, and an unknown man, dead. The desperate Isabel views the foundling as a gift from heaven and wants to raise the child. By-the-books Tom immediately wants to go to the authorities, report the incident and do the right thing. But they don’t. And that’s when things get twisty, complicated, morally ambiguous and—with Alexandre Desplat’s lovely score pining away—sadder and sadder.
Clocking in at two hours and 15 minutes, The Light Between Oceans takes way too long getting going, but it’s easy to see what it wants to be. Those windswept, harshly beautiful locales, the lighthouse on the water buffeted by raging winds and the astounding sunsets are backdrops that might have inspired no less than a master than David Lean, one of Cianfrance’s inspirations here. But he has also said that he wanted the film’s emotional impact to be like a John Cassavetes movie—raw, real, messy and complicated with long, unbroken takes. Well, we do get the long takes, but not the punch. Sure, Vikander lets it rip, particularly in scenes in which Isabel suffers a miscarriage or battles depression. She’s stunning—emotionally accessible and wide open in ways that let the audience in, even when her character makes destructive decisions. Rachel Weisz, playing a wealthy neighbor with a secret, gets her licks in too, particularly in some powerful scenes with Vikander and Fassbender about which it would be spoiler-ish to say more. As compelling as Fassbender can be onscreen, he can give off an icy, inaccessible vibe that freezes out the viewer.
Ultimately there’s something cold and hollow about the film, and it’s really too bad. There’s no denying how compelling (if clockworky) the narrative is or how gorgeously Adam Arkapaw (True Detective) shot the movie on locations in Australia and New Zealand. But even with all the good stuff, The Light Between Oceans too often shines dimly.