Don’t go to a Derek Cianfrance film looking for characters to end up happy. There may be moments where a family is a whole, but it’s like a beautiful vase falling to the ground, moments away from shattering irreparably. Cianfrance has explored this shattering effect in his previous two films, Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, and he returns to it in his latest effort, The Light Between Oceans, a story where one family’s happiness is stolen from another’s. While The Light Between Oceans lacks the intensity of Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, it’s still anchored by two strong performances, striking cinematography, and an outstanding score that attempt to pull at your heartstrings in between wandering thoughts of life as a lighthouse keeper.
The story begins in December 1918 where Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) has come home from World War I and seeks a life of quiet solitude. He gets a job as a lighthouse keeper, but soon after begins a relationship with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), and after a series of romantic letters, the two are married. They try to start a family on their little island, but Isabel miscarries twice. Not long after her second miscarriage, a boat washes up on the island with a live baby and a dead man inside. While Tom wants to report the incident, Isabel believes that it’s their responsibility to raise the infant as their own. Eager to make his wife happy, Tom reluctantly agrees, buries the dead man and the couple raises the child as their own under the pretense that the second miscarriage never happened. Several years later, Tom discovers the identity of the child’s mother, the grief-stricken Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), who lives in town and continues to mourn for her “lost” daughter. Tom and Isabel are forced to reckon with the morality of their actions, and whether their child must be returned to her birth mother.
The Light Between Oceans is a slow, somber movie replete with montages of happier days that are soon to go by. At times, the film plays like the most convincing advertisement for life as a lighthouse keeper. Cianfrance offers up an idyllic view of a life that we know he’s going to strip away even as the scenic vistas remain permanent. Tom and Isabel’s island is never in danger; only their lives on that island once they make their decision to effectively steal a child. The film even has to go out of its way in a stilted bit of a dialogue where Tom raises the possibility of officially adopting the child and Isabel shoots it down by saying that no adoption agency would let a child be raised away from civilization. She has a point, but the film makes it awkwardly.
That’s because of the film is ultimately building to the moral conundrum of what is the price of happiness? The problem is that The Light Between Oceans is too pretty to be difficult. Between its gorgeous cinematography, Alexandre Desplat’s melodic score, and the romance between the lead characters, it’s a lot like someone trying to notify you you’re getting a parking ticket while getting a massage. At some point, you’re too relaxed to care about real problems, and while The Light Between Oceans eventually dives headfirst into overwrought melodrama, it’s also a story that lacks immediacy.
Because the story is building to a contrived emotional dilemma, there’s none of the slow fracturing that made Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines so effective. The Light Between Ocean comes to a break, and while the effects of that break can be devastating, especially with regards to the relationship between Isabel and her stolen daughter, they also don’t have the consistent emotional impact because we’ve spent so much time with yet another pleasant montage. The good times in The Light Between Oceans don’t make the hard times any harder; they set the tone and any unpleasantness feels out of place.
Taken piecemeal, there’s plenty to enjoy with The Light Between Oceans. It’s a very pretty film with really strong performances from Fassbender and Vikander. The Desplat score is lovely, and there are moments, like Isabel’s first miscarriage during a torrential downpour, that feel truly terrifying. But there’s not much of the variation in tone, and too often The Light Between Oceans feels like a handsomely made video brochure before lapsing into a moralistic melodrama that attempts to grab sentiment the film hasn’t really earned. We feel for these characters on a superficial level, but the connection is missing. Instead of longing for Tom and Isabel to find happiness, we find ourselves longing to become lighthouse keepers.