“The Light Between Oceans” is a delicate film about grief, and its unrivaled power to make people do anything to avoid feeling it. The film’s major characters have all been damaged by grief in one way or another before we even meet them, and they do some pretty irrational things in moments of despair as the story unfolds. Sometimes you blame them for their bad choices. Sometimes you can’t possibly, if you understand what that kind of loss is like.
Michael Fassbender is Tom Sherbourne, a World War I vet whose silent gaze is the very definition of shell shock. We never learn the details, but knowing he’s been through the horrors of war is enough. Fassbender has relatively little dialogue throughout the film, but he telegraphs so much with just his expression that words might seem redundant.
Sherbourne lands in Western Australia, and takes a solitary job as the lighthouse keeper on the remote island of Janus Rock. He falls in love with and marries the boss’ daughter Isabel, played with primitive emotion by Alicia Vikander. For a while, they live an idyllic life in their little cottage, blissfully isolated by the crashing waves around them.
But Isabel suffers two miscarriages, and Vikander is heartbreakingly authentic as the life drains out of Isabel’s eyes and her anguish takes over. Now the isolation turns bleak, and so begins the film’s exploration of how the finality of grief cruelly cuts us off from the life we are living. When a dinghy washes up on the beach with a dead man and a live baby in it, Isabel sees an opportunity to heal their unbearable loss.
They visit the mainland to celebrate their new family and run into Hannah Roennfeldt, the widow of the dead man in the dinghy, and the mother of the child Isabel now calls her own daughter. Hannah believes her daughter is dead, lost at sea with her husband, and her sorrow is written all over Weisz’s beautiful face. Weisz gives her small but key role the grounding it needs in this film; a lesser movie star may not be so captivating and sympathetic with so little screen time.
As the plot unfolds, the three main characters ride a punishing seesaw of hope/tragedy, and every time they hit the ground someone makes another cringe-worthy decision. Themes of fate, God, conscience and doing the wrong thing for the right reason all run through the film at the deft hands of director Derek Cianfrance. He uses contrasting sweeping shots of the lighthouse seascape with extreme close-ups of the actors to great effect, sharply defining the three characters’ emotional remoteness.
Cianfrance is not a stranger to making movies about people who make bad decisions. He directed the celebrated “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines” – both films about people making poor life choices for what they thought were good reasons, who ultimately face painful truths.
“The Light Between Oceans” is long, maybe a tad too long, but plays steadily like the page-turner novel it is based on. In spite of a slightly awkward ending, the film is a deeply serious, tender examination of emotional devastation, and how we humans have a natural tendency even after being capsized in a raging storm, to right ourselves and once again navigate toward the light.