Year by year, season by season, Hollywood has gotten better and better at churning out soapy, breathy prestige movies constructed just handsomely enough to cover up their seams. Partly, that’s a mark of experience: Think of the last two years’ worth of Academy and Golden Globe nominations, especially Eddie Redmayne vehicles like The Danish Girl or The Theory of Everything, movies soaked in rich production values and cut from consumer-safe foreign cloth that make melodrama out of human struggle. (Go back further if you like. You’ll find The Queen, Atonement, La Vie en rose, Anna Karenina, Quartet, the remainder of Tom Hooper’s post-2010 output, and more and worse.)
The biz has been making movies under this brand for years. It’s only natural the brand should improve in aesthetics, if not in content. Putting Derek Cianfrance in charge of such a film, then, feels like good logic, and thus we have The Light Between Oceans, an adaptation of an Australian writer M.L. Stedman’s debut novel, which possibly reads less disjointedly on the page than it does on screen. Cianfrance prefers to crush hearts rather than just draw tears: Blue Valentine, his first film, aims for the ventricles, while his follow-up, 2012’s The Place Beyond the Pines, tries to smother souls. Both are complex quasi-tragedies that buckle under the weight of their author’s ambitions—and it’s true of The Light Between Oceans too. You get the sense that Cianfrance wants us to applaud it just for having great aspirations.
The good: The film often looks lovely. But all of that loveliness is a cover for a creaky narrative. Cianfrance’s plot commences when war veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes a position as a lighthouse keeper off the Western Australian coast, intent on separating himself from society for society’s sake. Men like Tom are catnip to women like Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who falls for the battle-scarred soldier after meeting him on the mainland on fewer than a handful of occasions and exchanging a stack of letters. (It is remarkable how fast the studio system has pigeonholed Vikander as a love interest for tormented men in their awards bait. She’s the Manic Prestige Dream Girl.)
They marry in seconds, and she has two miscarriages in only slightly larger a window of time than that. (You’d think The Light Between Oceans would save some perspective for her, but it’s determined to stick with Tom’s self-pitying point of view for unfathomable reasons.) But before grief can swallow Isabel hole, a baby washes ashore on Tom’s island residence, and they quickly adopt the child as their own. About an hour in, the baby’s biological mother, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), appears in their lives and is apprised of the identity of Tom and Isabel’s infant soon after, and, well, you can maybe see what troubles The Light Between Oceans at its core: Cianfrance has to make two movies, or more specifically he has to tell two stories, a feat he hasn’t quite mastered despite the fact that he’s spent most of his career trying to do just that.
Is it gauche to wonder aloud if a film just hitting theaters might have been more comfortable as a miniseries on premium cable? If you have a TV set and an Internet connection, you probably know that longform storytelling has climbed to heights Olympian in our current era of televised dramatic excellency, and titles like The Light Between Oceans—panoramic in theme, in characterization and span—practically beg for a platform that allows them to fully develop each of their pivotal creative elements. Cianfrance’s problem is a common one faced by directors who try to jam too much into too little: He has to choose where to prioritize his focus, which means sticking mostly to Tom and to Isabel and pegging Hannah as a supporting character in what’s equally as much her story as theirs.
Maybe Cianfrance’s choice isn’t much of a choice at all. Maybe Hannah’s slim necessity to the mechanics of the The Light Between Oceans’ conflict is Stedman’s responsibility and not his. But whether Cianfrance or Stedman is culpable for the secondary status Hannah endures is irrelevant. In a more substantial film, Hannah, and by extension Weisz, would be more than integral to its tragedy. The Light Between Oceans is callous enough for designating Tom as the audience’s anchor when all the bad that befalls him does so outside of its boundaries, and all the bad that befalls Isabel does so before our very eyes. That Hannah is so thinly drawn is its own appalling faux pas in screenwriting and close to an insult to Weisz, one of our best working actors.
Too much Hannah, though, might demand too much of a film intended to work in the moment and dissolve from our senses once we’ve left the theater. The Light Between Oceans wants to sweep us up and hold us in its lachrymose thrall for two hours with a combination of beautiful mise-en-scène and performances from high-caliber talents and rising stars. It succeeds at that, though Vikander and Fassbender both feel like they’re repeating past roles—the latter in particular. Weisz acts circles around them, a small miracle in light of how little she’s got to work with: She squeezes wrenching anguish out of a lemon. When you weep for her, you’ll weep for real. The rest is all artifice, but at least you can’t see the hem.
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Writer: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson
Release Date: September 2, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.