The Light Between Oceans is an epic of crashing waves and streaming tears, a film in which the torrent of the sea is matched only by the tides of emotion. There is something magnificently humane about Derek Cianfrance’s newest opus, based on M.L. Stedman’s 2012 novel – a sense of all-consuming, overpowering love. The film is a portrait of delicate humanity in all its complicated facets, tracing the thin lines between joy and sorrow, greed and selflessness, love and hate. The film’s emotions are heavy, but the canvas onto which they are projected is drawn in subtly refined strokes.
In post-WWI Australia, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) has emerged from the war broken and silent, a man of few words whose face speaks at a louder volume than he intends. He takes a post as a lighthouse keeper off the Western coast, a job of lengthy, uncommon seclusion. For Tom, isolation and solitude seem like fresh and inviting concepts in the wake of the hysteria of war – that is, until he meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), whose youth and vitality help him emerge from the fog. They marry and settle on the lighthouse shores, where they plan to start a family – but fate ebbs and flows just like the tides. First, Isabel suffers a series of miscarriages, leaving her body and soul ravaged. Then, as if a sign from above, a boat washes up on the shore carrying an infant having miraculously survived the waves even as the only other passenger – presumably the child’s father – has perished. The situation leaves Tom and Isabel with a horrible quandary: do they take this seeming cosmic gift and raise the child as their own, or does Tom report the finding and follow the proceedings to hand the child over to the local government?
There are no easy answers in The Light Between Oceans, which becomes an odyssey that weighs the pressure of guilt against the power of love, a most torturous choice, indeed. Tom shirks his duty to report the discovery and essentially engages in a hasty cover-up with Isabel, but that cover-up results in the realization of their greatest dreams: to become parents, to care for a child, to raise a new life. The specter of guilt looms large, especially for Tom, whose ingrained sense of duty is abandoned to soothe that most painful void in his emotional self. Complicating matters further is the emergence of Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), a widow whose tale of loss bears striking resemblance to the wreckage Tom and Isabel found on their shores.
There are revelations aplenty in Cianfrance’s adaptation, though none of them are of the earth-shattering or intelligence-insulting variety. He is less interested in the “who” and “what” than he is the “how,.” How do these very wounded people, each of whom is caught in a paralyzingly tragic tug-of-war between what’s been ripped from them and what fills that hole, cope with their pain, face their reality, and grapple with the aftermath? This story, created in powerful prose by Stedman and adapted into lyrical cinema by Cianfrance, is about the acute measures of deep humanity in the midst of a chronic struggle. What defines us as people? If it’s love, then our entire human universe orbits that love. Every decision we make, whether to seize it or let it go, and every step we take, regardless of whether we serendipitously stumble upon it or watch helplessly as it evaporates into thin air. It’s all part of the same continuum, on the same wavelength, pieces of the same human journey.
For Cianfrance, this is the next step in his evolution as a filmmaker who follows stories to their breaking point. Themes and emotions may linger beyond the closing credits, as they should, but the text of the story is traced completely, from A to Z. He has steadily been moving from indie modernism to expansive traditionalism, yet the intimacy of his characters’ struggle remains just as vivid. There isn’t much in the way of surface comparison between The Light Between Oceans and Blue Valentine, but in spite of setting, are these not both stories about people who are ravaged by love, shifting over time as they tirelessly labor to reconcile their ideals with their reality? There are still more concrete ties to The Place Beyond the Pines, tracing the downstream effects of tragic decisions across families and, finally, generations. The “light” of The Light Between Oceans references the unique position of the lighthouse, a place where one can glimpse the vast distance behind but also look ahead to the horizon, a position where one can linger on the past but also focus ahead, on what’s to come. That is Cianfrance’s sweet spot. He is an auteur of grief and fallout, of cause and effect, of then, now, and beyond.