“There’s always something to fix”
Writer/director Derek Cianfrance isn’t done with cinematic tapestries of emotion quite yet as The Light Between Oceans fits his still burgeoning oeuvre perfectly. Based on M.L. Stedman‘s debut novel, the structure delivers a similar duality as both Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines before it. We spend so much time with lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) and his wife Isabel (Alicia Vikander) that it proves a jarring switch to suddenly shift towards heartbroken widow Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), especially knowing her place in this devastating equation. The three deliver a tale of unshakeable love alongside the strength to survive unspeakable tragedy. They share guilt and regret, pity and sorrow, agony and forgiveness all in the face of impossible decisions. Family always rendered deeper than blood.
If you’ve seen the trailers you know this trio is bound together by a child (Florence Clery) lost at sea. Found by the Sherbournes in a tumultuous time of need after a second miscarriage, it’s decided that she will be raised as their own despite knowing the truth of her parentage may one-day be revealed. This is where Hannah enters, a grieving woman who believes she has lost her reasons to live: husband and daughter. How do Tom and Isabel endure this revelation? Where does heart and mind separate as cultivated love and insufferable guilt clash so that the balance within their ever-increasingly unsteady existence is shattered? We know the Sherbournes to be good people, but when exactly do their actions prove otherwise? What does justice look like?
Beyond this central conceit, however, is a wealth of expository imperatives born from its 1918, post-Great War Australian setting. Not only does this period provide Tom with a haunting past when he believed happiness futile broken only by the love of Isabel, it also lends grave circumstances to the mystery of Frank Roennfeldt’s (Leon Ford) fateful evening row with newborn baby in arms. There’s an air of animosity—human compassion overshadowed by labels “hero” and “villain”—that lends public perception a cruel lens through which to view the truth. More pain and suffering is demanded despite the ample amount already wrought, because this nightmarish ordeal can be settled through a black and white notion of right versus wrong. But in life, complexities of the heart reject such binary thinking.
This is where The Light Between Oceans moves well beyond what could’ve been just another romantic drama pulling at heartstrings for no reason pther than to earn tears. What Cianfrance and Stedman deliver instead is something with lasting impact that will spark conversation. How would you handle a similar situation, from both sides of the difficult equation? Because while the most obvious moral quandary is whether to keep the baby or report its discovery, the more interesting one stems from the frustration of a mother whose child believes she’s been stolen from the people who actually stole her. We’re dealing with emotionally intense scenarios without easy answers in a time when it’s intentionally explained that a woman can’t be held responsible for her husband’s actions. And where there are always worse endings than death.
It’s therefore crucial that we spend so much time with Tom and Isabel during their courtship and hardship. We must know his suffering after a war that spared his life but not that of many others. The same goes for Isabel as the lone child of a respected family, that same war taking her brothers away. They’ve been defined by tragedy for so long that the idea of living together on an island unto them is appealing. The Janus Lighthouse is a veritable Garden of Eden, removed from politics and violence, a sanctuary where it's possible to start anew. Life has brought them together and the future holds such promise with which to mend their souls and let them give everything to a child. Who’s to say God didn’t deliver their wish?
But with salvation is also destruction. In order to accept this baby as theirs they must forsake a child that was not to be. To have joy is to risk a fate even worse than the agony they find themselves combatting at the time of decision. Would it be worth it? Could they forget what happened if they were to never find out the truth? Could they live with the guilt of what they’ve done if they do? This is weighty territory with as much resentment as adoration. Fassbender’s Tom can’t allow more demons onto his back than are already there—his affection is pure but his mind grief-stricken towards the damage that this purity cost. Vikander’s Isabel can barely see beyond the gift of life she so craved.
To see them grow together is to watch them suffer. Their love provides the cliff from which to jump, the consequence of honesty delivering a future blinded by anger until it’s too late. Both give powerful performances of selflessness in the face of earthly and spiritual punishment. They could have what they want if only they sacrifice a little more. Or they can experience the next chapter together as they had the one before, albeit less full. It’s obviously not solely their decision with Hannah stuck in the middle as an outsider to her own happiness, lost once and perhaps again. Weisz is equal to the task, forcing her counterparts to react rather than ignore. Her sorrow catalyzes their bliss while ultimately proving the cause of their misery.
Beautifully shot by Adam Arkapow, we want this island paradise to still be home for a loving family when it appears hopeless. The script allows Tom more altruism while painting Isabel under a harsher light for those unable to understand the bond formed with her daughter. But considering the time period and situation, these choices don’t ruin the experience. I never felt wholly manipulated—not during certain ultimatums, nor by an epilogue that’s more sweetly touching than cloyingly idealistic. In the end, this tale is about the well-being of a young girl and the love both family and unknowing strangers shower upon her. It’s about the human condition, our wants and desires connecting us beyond surface differences. There are no monsters, just heartbroken souls desperate for purpose beyond death.
Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 132 minutes | Release Date: September 2nd, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director(s): Derek Cianfrance
Writer(s): Derek Cianfrance / M.L. Stedman (novel)