The Light Between Oceans (2016) ☆☆(2/4): A tepid melodrama between love and guilt

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While it is filled with melodramatic elements ready to be utilized, “The Light Between Oceans” feels tame and bland in its frustratingly low-key approach, and it remains inane and tedious even as it doles out several plot turns one by one later in the story. I appreciated the good efforts from its cast and crew which are evident on the screen, but I hardly cared about its story and characters on the whole, and I accordingly felt bored as merely observing its limp plot process.

The first part of the movie is about how its despondent hero comes to settle in a remote island far off the west coast region of Australia. It is around the time when the World War I was being over, and Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) wants to have some quiet peaceful time alone due to his 4-year battlefield experience. When he applies for the job of lighthouse keeper on that island, he does not mind at all that he will have to spend no less than 6 months alone in the island, and he is even not so disturbed by the fact that his predecessor was put into a hospital after having a nervous breakdown.

After several months, Tom comes to extend his stay on the island. While he is fine with being alone in the island as before, he finds himself getting close to Isabel (Alicia Vikander), a young woman living in a nearby port town. Right from when they come across each other for the first time, Isabel is attracted to him even though she knows nothing about him, so she actively approaches to him, and their first date is quickly followed by a clichéd montage sequence accompanied with their letters to each other being read loud and clear on the soundtrack.

As time goes by, Tom finds himself more opened to Isabel, and he eventually comes to propose to her. When they finally live together after getting married, his life on the island feels far less lonely than before and Isabel soon becomes pregnant, but, alas, their happiness does not last that long. During one dark, stormy night (I am not kidding), she happens to suffer a miscarriage while her husband is not around her due to his lighthouse work. They try again later, but she comes to suffer another miscarriage, and she is naturally devastated by this repeated misfortune of hers.

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And then an incident happens not long after her second miscarriage. A small boat is drifted to the shore of the island, and there is a young baby girl in the boat besides the corpse of a man who seems to be her father. Tom is supposed to report this to the authorities, but Isabel has a different idea. She wants to raise that baby as her own daughter, and Tom reluctantly follows her wish although he knows well that they can go to jail for that. He buries the corpse somewhere in the island, and then the baby girl is introduced as their daughter to others including Isabel’s parents.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Tom and Isabel come to face the consequence of their action. Via a rather unbelievable coincidence, Tom happens to encounter a grieving woman named Hannah (Rachel Weisz), and then he comes to realize that he and his wife may be responsible for Hannah’s misery. When Isabel also comes to learn about that, she becomes conflicted just like her husband, but she does not want to give up her happiness even though it is based on a totally wrong deed.

I guess we are supposed to understand and emphasize with Tom and Isabel at this point, but the adapted screenplay by the director Derek Cianfrance, which is based on the novel of the same name by M.L. Stedman, fails to provide enough emotional ground to engage us. As hampered by its clumsy manipulation of plot and characters, the movie gets worse especially during its last act decorated with a couple of shamelessly soapy moments, and the finale is utterly insipid to say the least.

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The main performers in the film try their best with their respective roles. While he is surely well-cast here as a flawed man with dark streaks, Michael Fassbender does not have much to do except looking glum or conflicted, and this is a major step down from his recent Oscar-nominated performance in “Steve Jobs” (2015). In case of Alicia Vikander, she is in a much better position in comparison, but her fine performance cannot fully compensate for many artificial moments in the film, and you may recall how she was much better in “Ex Machina” (2015) and “The Danish Girl” (2015), for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

The best performance in the film belongs to Rachel Weisz, who effortlessly draws our attention as the most sympathetic character in the story. When the movie shifts its focus toward Hannah, we get to know a bit more about her through a flashback sequence involved with her dead husband, and we actually come to understand her more than Tom or Isabel. Weisz has a good scene with Vikander when their characters have a private moment between them for discussing their important matter, and it shows us how much the movie could be better with more human nuances.

While it is disappointing in terms of story and characters, “The Light Between Oceans” is commendable at least in technical aspects. The cinematography by Adam Arkapaw is breathtaking as required with all those wide shots of oceanic landscapes, and the movie surely looks beautiful as accompanied with the score by Alexandre Desplat, which is as lush and mellow as demanded. I do not mind tearjerkers, but the movie is not a very good one despite some nice elements to notice, so I advise you to skip it – even if you have spare time to kill.

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