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Review: The beauty and tragedy of ‘The Light Between Oceans’

Michael Fassbender stars as Tom Sherbourne and Alicia Vikander as Isabel in “The Light Between Oceans.”
Michael Fassbender stars as Tom Sherbourne and Alicia Vikander as Isabel in “The Light Between Oceans.”

There is no misfortune too shattering for Derek Cianfrance it seems. The writer and director of “Blue Valentine,” “The Place Beyond the Pines” and now an adaptation of the M.L. Stedman novel “The Light Between Oceans” confidently strides into stories of little hope and painful circumstance, using pretty actors and even prettier settings to create sweeping milieus of human devastation.

But where the dissolving marriage in “Blue Valentine” was so tangibly real that it felt as raw as a breakup, “The Light Between Oceans” crashes into the shores of its own strange story, pummeling the audience with Big Feelings that never quite cut through. Perhaps it’s because it follows the characters down a morally murky path of increasingly poor choices where only one is given any depth after the original sin.

“The Light Between Oceans” starts out as a handsome love story in a handsome place, even if dread looms in the angry seas and winds enveloping this picturesque seaside town. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender, looking rugged and war-weary) has just returned from service in World War I and takes a position as the caretaker of a lighthouse on a small island off the coast of Australia. He’s warned that the last man in the job went a little crazy out there on his own, and everyone seems to think that it’s just not a good idea to live on that island without a wife.

In any event, the stoic Tom finds a woman soon enough in Isabel (a luminous Alicia Vikander), who is forward and spirited enough to suggest a date with the shy newcomer. They fall fast and beautifully in love and take off for life on the island together.

Then Isabel starts to have problems carrying a child to term. She loses one early on, and then another quite a bit later in pregnancy. The second is the blow that threatens to destroy them, until they spot a rowboat drifting in the waters. Inside, there’s a dead man and a wailing infant girl.

After one night with the child, Isabel is a goner. She’s fallen in love with this gift and like a stubborn child will not let go despite Tom’s pleas. But Tom, seeing the spark return to Isabel’s haunted eyes, reluctantly caves.

And they start raising the little one as their own, sinking deeper into the lie until Tom realizes that the mother, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), lives heartbroken on the mainland. The human factor makes Tom’s moral compass spin and it’s here that the story really starts to lose itself quite simply because the other half of this equation is reduced to a one-note cliché.

“The Light Between Oceans” is stunning to see, and the performances are of the highest caliber, but it’s all packaged in a story that just doesn’t earn its stay, or our tears.

The Light Between Oceans

 1/2

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz

Director: Derek Cianfrance

132 minutes

Rated PG-13 (thematic material and some sexual content)

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