You know it’s October/November when you find yourself entering the movie theatre to watch a fourth big screen novel adaptation in a row. This time between the summer blockbusters and awards season is a time full of releases that don’t really fit in to any particular category, and with a mixture of genres encompassed in its narrative, The Light Between Oceans is a perfect example of the kind of film that finds a home in the lead up to the big Christmas time releases and just before the heavy shadow of the Oscars starts looming large over the movie industry.
Based on a 2012 novel by author M. L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans tells the story of Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a World War I veteran who takes up the post of lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the coast of Western Australia. Tom quickly falls in love with and is joined by his new wife, local girl Isabel (Alicia Vikander), and though their early life together is filled with joy, things quickly turn somber after two traumatising miscarriages in three years. Desperate for a child, the couple’s prayers look answered one day when a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a living baby. Against Tom’s moral wishes, the couple decide not to report the incident and raise the child as their own, but this decision comes back to haunt them in more ways than one when years later, more information about the child’s real identity comes to light. The first thing to say about the film is that it is a masterclass in cinematography. From sweeping cliff shots to panoramic seascapes every frame looks like a work of art. With such a beautiful canvas on which to tell a story, however, it would be fair to say that the narrative does not quite match the expert touch of the aesthetic. At over two hours in length, the picture takes its time in getting to the ‘good stuff’, making the first hour feel slightly prolonged and lingering with not much change of pace or scenery to keep the audience involved. When the meat of the plot does start to cook, there is definitely some enjoyment to be had in the putting together of the puzzle pieces, and though the narrative doesn’t take any super unexpected or innovative turns, the last 45 minutes or so do provide you with enough heartbreak and intrigue to make most of the wait worth while.
The picture isn’t brilliant but it isn’t bad either, in fact it feels very much like exactly what it is, a middle of the road adaptation of a middle of the road novel that with the help of some above average actors, becomes a cinematic experience that whilst vaguely enjoyable at the time, won’t linger in the mind for long after viewing. Think along the lines of films like Labor Day and The Painted Veil, perfectly acceptable pictures that are for from the usual Nicholas Sparks drivel but nowhere near the very best that the sub-genre has to offer such as The English Patient.
As Tom Sherbourne, Michael Fassbender is able to give a very stoic and quiet performance without ever sacrificing the inner power and charisma that the character clearly possesses. Fassbender is an actor that really commands a scene, even when playing a mild mannered man, and this was certainly needed at times when his only screen partner was a howling wind or a crashing tide. Alicia Vikander impresses as Isabel, expertly portraying an initial innocence and naiveté that the audience physically witness transform in to a dogged and misguided determination to satisfy her deepest desires against better moral judgement. Together, the pair have a compelling chemistry that carries the story in it’s quieter moments, and importantly display enough humanity and likability in their respective characters that the audience are willing to go along with the suspect decision without completely turning against them. A powerful supporting performance is given by Rachel Weisz as a woman deeply connected to the real identity of the child, and though she has far less screen time than either Fassbender or Vikander, the complex range of emotions that she displays for her particular storyline might have been difficult for a lesser actress.
Overall, The Light Between Oceans is a perfectly serviceable melodrama that pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. You are going to become a little invested, you are going to do a little crying, you are going to briefly ponder whether you should pick up the original novel to enhance the experience, but ultimately you are going to have forgotten everything by the end of the year. Don’t let me stop you from heading out to enjoy a romantic period piece with a dose of extra mystery, but perhaps wait for it to hit Netflix instead.