The Light Between Oceans
The Light Between Oceans (12a)
Running time 2hr 13min
THE Light Between Oceans is the latest example of a big screen adaptation of a bestselling novel. Michael Fassbender stars; an actor on hiatus from thwarting Professor X and company in Marvel’s X-Men origins franchise and other action-heavy fare – including upcoming video game spin-off Assassin’s Creed and the second Alien prequel.
A First World War-era melodrama, The Light Between Oceans is clearly something of a departure from the type of stuff the Irish-German actor has been used to of late.That’s not to say the character of Tom Sherbourne is any less demanding. Indeed, the subject matter is harrowing, and while Fassbender may not have employed the physicality he’s applied to the likes of Magneto, Aguilar and android David, he’s more than matched it here with emotion. At a recent London press junket promoting the film, Fassbender told us that, as a man who’d just emerged the other side of the First World War, Tom’s experience needed to be “written on his face and his soul” because “he’s carrying this shadow of death and the horrors of World War I with him”.
Reeling from survivor’s guilt, Tom looks forward to taking on a role as lighthouse keeper on a remote Australian island, to heal in isolation. However, he doesn’t bank on meeting Isabel (real-life significant other Alicia Vikander). The two instantly connect and, soon enough, she joins him on the island and marries him. The couple experience two devastating
miscarriages. As Isabel despairs, hope arrives in the form of a rowing boat carrying a baby cradled in its dead father’s arms. Isabel and Tom decide to keep the child and raise it as their own. Years later, while visiting the mainland, they encounter the child’s real mother – and Tom’s conscience can’t handle the discovery, presenting him with a heartbreaking dilemma.
This period tearjerker borrows from 1950s melodramas, unapologetically depicting a humourless domestic story of love, loss and bad decisions. It asks moral questions and threatens to end tragically, using nature in the film as a signifier of metaphorical storms ahead.
Like The Girl on the Train before it – another recent release that grew out of a novel – it falls down because of its dependence on stereotypes. Isabel has parallels with Emily Blunt’s titular character, Rachel, and, though almost a century divides them, both women are driven to the brink by an inability to conceive. Both also take leave of their senses to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily dream of doing. It’s difficult to see what Tom – a stoic, contemplative, strong and moral man – sees in this naïve, single-minded girl, who seems more driven by her desire to procreate than any love she may feel for her husband. Nevertheless, he loves her apparently unconditionally and will do anything to make her happy. It seems odd that he remains relatively unaffected by the loss of two children, and you wonder whether war has made him numb or whether the film is reinforcing stereotypes – that the man is affected less by such a loss. Given Isabel’s response, you conclude the latter. Ultimately, his decision to keep the baby to placate his wife catches up with him and he finds he can’t live with himself. However, he’s still prepared to do all he can to protect her – even keep his silence and face the death penalty.
Rachel Weisz as the child’s real mother is wasted – while Fassbender and Vikander do at least get to flex their acting muscles, Weisz languishes in the inconvenient grieving widow role. Holes in the plot compound our lack of empathy for Isabel, and her selfish actions make her impossible to like, forgive or identify with – which makes what happens to Tom, and Fassbender as it happens, all the more tragic.