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Tale of woe

“The Light Between Oceans” is an emotional rollercoaster

Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander in “The Light Between Oceans”

Call it highbrow Nicholas Sparks.

Deeply wrought, hewn to feminine sensibilities, but with a more compelling moral hypothetical than the standard sensationalized weeper, “The Light Between Oceans” is a chick lit flick for the arthouse crowd. This lush, sweeping, but brutal tale about the fallout of a desperate decision made by a desperate couple aspires to more than manipulative melodrama, yet that thematic ambition also tempers its emotional catharsis. 

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and even helps undergird this story’s high concept with some laudable conviction, but for as much as these characters are put through (and, by extension, the audience), some viewers—particularly those of the movie’s core demo—may find the melancholy resolution more bittersweet than they’d been holding out for. 

Based on the 2012 book club sensation by M.L. Stedman, “The Light Between Oceans” tells an ill-fated post-World War I tale of two beautiful-but-turbulent people whose marriage unfolds where two oceans meet. The “light between” is, in one sense, literally a lighthouse; it stands tall on a remote island far off the western coast of Australia. 

Its new caretaker is Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a veteran of The Great War still haunted by its horrors. The vocation of lighthouse manager— which leaves him alone on the island for months at a time—proves to be the semi-monastic balm his troubled soul needs. The prospect of wholeness comes in the form of Isabel (Alicia Vikander), a vibrant, spirited young woman back on the mainland. They fall in love and marry, as Fassbender and Vikander display a tangible chemistry that sparked a real-life romance.

As sure as the sea’s violent storms will come crashing in, so too does nature’s cruelty to Tom and Isabel. They strive to start a family but with heartbreaking consequences until, unexpectedly, a providential occurrence leads to an unethical (and illegal) life-changing decision. The choice gnaws at Tom’s conscience, but he concedes to Isabel’s agonized pleas. A chance encounter with a woman on the mainland (Rachel Weisz), however, may cause Tom and Isabel’s secret ruse to be exposed. 

The result is an emotional roller coaster of delicate intensity, one that will provoke and torment deeply felt maternal instincts. After the couple’s initial romance, their tragic struggles and compromised choices imbue “The Light Between Oceans” with a palpable burden. Tom is being eaten away by moral crisis, and few play fraught and tortured as well as Fassbender. By contrast, Isabel isn’t amoral; she’s inconsolable. Grief has clouded her clarity; her actions, while selfish, are innate psychological survival tactics. Tom needs to be strong enough for them both, but his wartorn psyche isn’t.

Writer/director Derek Cianfrance broke through as an indie naturalist in 2010’s “Blue Valentine” and then displayed 70s-era auteuristic vitality with 2012’s “The Place Beyond The Pines.” He successfully translates his penchant for raw, intimate devastation in a more formal genre here, with a huge assist from cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (who shot the entire first season of HBO’s evocative “True Detective”). Together, they craft one of the best-looking films of the year, with striking epic portraits.

If “The Light Between Oceans” has one primary drawback, it may be in its unrelenting commitment to go to its dark places. It takes itself too seriously to be voyeuristic four-hanky grief porn, yet the just outcome this dilemma requires is too clear-cut for a movie that wants us to wrestle with what the best course might be. Where it lands is credible, but something slightly more idealized could’ve helped purge the traumatic weight that this tale of woe packs on.

For more from Jeff, read his review of Woody Allen's Cafe Society.