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United Kingdom/New Zealand/United Kingdom 2016
Directed by
Derek Cianfrance
132 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Light Between Oceans, The

Synopsis: A lighthouse keeper, Tom  (Michael Fassbender), and his wife ,Isabel (Alicia Vikander), living off the coast of Western Australia raise as their own a baby they rescued from an adrift rowboat. They tell no-one of the circumstances but when they meet the child’s mother (Rachel Weisz), their guilt eats at their relationship.

In our days of graphic violence, explicit sex and gross out humour, the “weepie” or “woman’s film” is a rare species. With The Light Between Oceans, a tasteful but substantial story of the pains of love, parental and otherwise, director Derek Cianfrance shows that it’s worth saving,.  No doubt the novel by M.L. Stedman which is the source of Cianfrance's script provides the foundation of the film’s success but the director skillfully transposes the plot from page to screen, the development of the narrative being handled with finesse whilst the story’s real humanity is never sacrificed to easy emotional manipulations.  

Set against the background of the epic tragedy that was WWI, The Light Between Oceans depicts the smaller personal tragedy of a couple who lose two babies in utero and seemingly miraculously are offered another life to care for. Tom, a traumatized veteran of the battlefields of France succumbs to his desperate wife’s pleas to keep the baby they find in a drifting boat but when he discovers the identity of the child’s mother he can no longer live with himself.

It is an intriguing scenario with complex moral and emotional  issues at its heart that are brought convincingly to the screen by the moving  performances of Vikander and Fassbender (who, as is so often the case, became a real-life couple during this production). Cianfrance’s understated but focused direction is supported by Alexandre Desplat’s typically empathetic score (and for Australian audiences in particular there are bonuses in the form of small roles for local veterans, Garry MacDonald, Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson).

Despite being a finely-crafted period piece the production design is restrained with Cianfrance keeping everything simple, even to the point of the actors using little make-up and the cinematography eschewing the soft-focus effects often used in the period film whilst the sound design incorporates the natural ambiance, whether it be a windy clifftop or the resonances of a weatherboard house. This assuages the emotional remove characteristic of the backward-looking, observational perspective and contributes to the film's dramatic immediacy.

Hard core realists may carp at the contrivances of timing needed to get the plot to work and wonder how Isabel could survive two miscarriages without medical support of any kind or who looked after the lighthouse once Tom was arrested but despite this The Light Between Oceans is a film that actually rewards you for the time devoted to it.




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