Few films mirror the experience of reading a book with cinema and novels being two very different mediums of storytelling. They’re each structured specifically to enhance the story through the way you consume them. As a film buff and avid reader, I appreciate both. But sometimes I fall upon a book that feels quite more cinematic than most or even more rarely, a film that feels little more like a book than others. In regards to the latter, with director Derek Cianfrance’s films, I always get that vibe. Not to say they are less cinematic than other films. By far, they are astonishing feats of filmmaking. But the way Cianfrance unfolds a story, measures its pace, and crafts characters through such defined and nuanced moments fall in line with novelized storytelling – in a very pleasantly surprising way.
Where Cianfrance uses this – I suppose – signature style of his so effectively in Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, it’s a bit of a bummer that it doesn’t work as well with a story like the one in his latest film, The Light Between Oceans. Starring Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, we explore the story of a couple who through tragedy make a decision that ultimately may separate them forever. It’s billed as an epic and melodramatic romance, a sure departure from the director’s previous work that makes you wonder what exactly attracted him to the project.
We first meet Tom (Fassbender), a keeper of a lighthouse off the coast of Western Australia. A veteran of war, Tom is a quiet, reserved individual, looking forward to a life of solitude on the lighthouse’s island. Then he meets Isabel (Vikander), a spirited young woman, during a visit to the mainland, and she slowly but surely captures his heart. They get married, and she joins his isolated existence on the island. Their relationship is tender, loving and respectful, all aided by the purely transcendent chemistry between Fassbender and Vikander. Eventually, their fairy tale of sorts comes to stop when Isabel suffers a miscarriage and then another just two years later. Their hopes of having a family are dashed until, by some miracle, they spot a row boat ashore with a crying baby and a dead man inside. Knowing the right thing to do would be to report the baby and dead man, presumably the father, to the authorities, the freshly painful loss of their second child makes Isabel plead with Tom to not tell anyone, to keep and raise the baby as their own. Despite his better judgement, Tom’s love for Isabel prevails and they keep the baby girl. Of course, a couple years later, it comes to light that the real mother (Rachel Weisz) of their daughter is still alive, and it wrecks Tom and Isabel to know that the daughter they’ve come to love and cherish doesn’t truly belong to them.
The story is fairly straightforward, and even perfunctory when looking at it as a whole. The characters act in the way you expect, and despite Cianfrance’s attempts to layer the film with long, sweeping moments and beautiful cinematography, it doesn’t do much to elevate the story into something more unique, or at least more riveting. Given its over two hours long run time, its languid pace doesn’t help. All it does is build up to moments that aren’t as emotionally rewarding as one would expect them to be.
Yet, even with its flaws, there are quite a few moments filtered throughout that are pure standout scenes. One of the most dreadful things is experiencing a miscarriage and the look on Isabel’s face when she realizes that she’s having another one is excruciating. The fear, the knowing that you’re going to experience something like that again, along with the helplessness, made that scene one of the most visceral and heartbreaking things I’ve seen in film.
The second half of the film is a bit more exciting, in that there’s much more going and the stress of the situation comes to the forefront. This is the biggest indication of the movie’s failings, where it should have had you fully invested at this point; any kind of interest slowly starts to wane. As an audience, we aren’t given the tools to equip ourselves to care enough to take anyone’s side, and while the performances are good, the story proceeds in a mechanical fashion.
This is when its sluggish pace starts to hinder your enjoyment, the beautiful shots feel overdone, and Vikander’s apt crying skills start to become frustratingly redundant. Once we arrive to the end, it becomes a question of who this movie is about, and that’s never really clear. Tom might be the most central character, but his presence doesn’t command as much as Vikander or even Rachel Weisz’s. Was it a movie about this couple’s relationship? The snapshot of time we’re given doesn’t do nearly enough to show how they’ve grown or learned from the experience, which frankly would’ve have been distinctly interesting and a perfect avenue for a director like Cianfrance to explore. In the end, we’re given a fairly straightforward conclusion, one that rests on a fine performance from Fassbender, but still doesn’t hit any emotional storytelling touchstones I had hoped the movie would finally deliver.
So yes, in many ways, The Light Between Oceans very much feels like a book, maybe one I was slightly disappointed by, but definitely not a movie I regretted seeing. Cianfrance is one of the few directors that can tap into human emotion with a delicate tenderness that I find so refreshing. He does it here a few times in this film, and if only it wasn’t weighed down with such melodrama, it could have been something remarkable.
The Light Between Oceans opens in theaters on Friday, September 2.