Heavy Drama in ‘Light Between Oceans’

A man, a woman and a child on a windswept island seem beyond the concerns of the rest of the world, in this Australian drama “The Light Between Oceans,” and it is that outside world that brings their idyllic world crashing down, threatening and testing their love. Based on M.L. Stedman’s debut novel of the same name, this period drama, written and directed by Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines”), is a bit predictable and the cinematography falters but the movie features strong performances by Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander.

Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a taciturn man with a stern mustache and a need for solitude. He well-muscled and disciplined, just returning from the horrors of the Western Front of World War I where there were days he couldn’t feel his feet from the numbing cold of the frozen mud. At the train station, of a port town in Western Australia, we seem him among other men, also returned, but these men have left their legs in foreign lands as souvenirs of the horror of their youth. Tom has come to take a temporary job, a job not usually offered to an unmarried man as the solitude can take its toil on the social mind of man. The job keeping the lighthouse on a small island, far from the mainland, with the only contact with the mainland is regular supply visits. He dines with a local family who lost two sons during that war and only have their daughter Isobel left (Vikander). She gives him such a smile, you know there is more to come.

The last lighthouse keeper needs a break. His wife, he has complains, has been flagging down ships and while that is a problem, the greater problem is his wife has been dead for two years.

The  island, Janus, after the two-faced god, is an isolated windswept place of solitude but not silence. The ocean waves range from insistent to angry and the wind whips over the rocks, hardy grasses and sand with a forceful presence. Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s (“McFarland, USA” and “Macbeth”) cinematography is at its best here, but falters in the more controlled domestic dramas.

Tom is summoned by the people in charge on the mainland; it seems the previous lighthouse keeper needs more than just a bit of time off and Tom is asked to sign a three-year contract. During his time in the town, young Isabel (Vikander) asks him on a picnic and asks him to take her to see Janus. He tells her that for the sake of propriety, a man can only take a woman if she’s his wife and she then proposes to him. They will write to each other as a matter of courtship.

This does not speak well for the young men of the village. Vikander is 27;  Fassbender is 39. One supposes that in the 1920s, a woman Vikander’s age might be considered a spinster and be a bit desperate. No matter. The parents are happy enough and bid Tom to take care of the only child they have left.

Tom is a tender husband and for a while, Janus island is their honeymoon paradise, but Isobel gets pregnant and loses the child in 1921, then tragically again in 1923. One might question the wisdom of allowing her to stay on Janus during the second pregnancy, but that isn’t touched upon. Instead, soon after the second miscarriage, as Isobel lays prone on the grass before the simple white crosses that mark where her stillborn babies are buried, she hears the slight sound of a baby crying. Tom, from the lighthouse, sights a row boat with a still figure in it coming to their shores.

Inside, is a young blond man and an infant girl. From a modern viewpoint, one can deduce that Isobel is suffering from depression and her mothering instinct draws her to the child. She begs Tom not to report it and while he counters they could legally adopt the child, she asks who would allow them to keep a child on Janus where there is no school, no doctor and no other children. So Tom reports that Isobel had her child early and the child is named Lucy.

On the day Tom and Isobel return to the village to have happy photos taken with her doting parents and have Lucy christened at the local church, Tom discovers Lucy’s real name is Grace Roennfeldt, the daughter of Frank (Leon Ford) and Hannah (Rachel Weisz). Hannah had been cast out by her father, Septimus Potts (Bryan Brown), the richest man in town, for marrying a German. Now widowed, she has returned home to her father as she wallows in grief with neither the body of her husband or child, just a tale about how he, being threatened and bullied, set off in a rowboat into the ocean and never returned. Tom struggles with his conscience and in an act of kindness sets into motion events that will see him accused of the murder of Frank and denounced by his beloved wife with Lucy/Grace confused and lost between two mothers.

Law & Order fans might be disappointed that this doesn’t become a legal drama. Cianfrance is more interested in the turmoil of different sorts of love–a mother and her child, a woman desperate to be a mother and a man toward his wife and hers toward him. It is here than Arkapaw’s cinematography falters. There’s an outdoor scene where the solar flare is annoying evident and indoor scenes where the actor is backlit with his/her face obscured and not filled in with reflected light, making the scene seem faded instead of sun-drenched. As a deliberate choice, there is only one scene this was effective.

In the end, one might long for the simplicity of Janus, apart from the rest of the world where order is kept by the decisions of the people living there until the outside world intrudes. What lifts this love story is the emotional pull of Janus as imagined by Cianfrance and realized through the lens of Arkapaw. This is an old-fashioned somewhat predictable story about love that can both create and destroy lives during a much simpler time under the brooding skies between two oceans. If you like brooding, tortured romance about true love, this might fit the bill.

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