Back in 2010 Derek Cianfrance made Blue Valentine, a beautifully nuanced and melancholy movie about two lovers which had fabulous performances from his two leads, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. So when Cianfrance returned to similar themes of love, loss and separation with The Light Between Oceans there was a real sense of anticipation. Unfortunately, this film has traded nuance for dullness and melancholy for melodrama.
The story is based on M.L. Stedman’s eponymous bestseller about WWI veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) who seeks solace and silence as a lighthouse keeper, far from the madding crowd. En route to his new posting, he meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander). She’s all vivacious jollity, a foil to his taciturn intensity. After a courtship, which Isabel has instigated, the couple marry and move to their isolated home.
Their conjugal bliss turns to tragedy and near madness when Isabel miscarries two children. In the midst of their grief arrives a boat bearing a dead man and his baby daughter. Isabel convinces Tom to bring the baby up as their own. All goes well until Tom discovers that the baby’s mother Hannah (Rachel Weisz) is living in the same town as his in-laws. Torn between love for his wife and surrogate child and his desire to do the right thing, Tom leaves clues for Hannah until the baby’s identity is revealed. And thus his marriage and Isabel’s sanity begin to unravel with potentially fatal consequences.
When Tom steps off the train in his new town, every man we see on the station platform either has a missing limb or is physically maimed in some way. Tom is physically whole, but we know he is crippled internally. Fassbender speaks in a low, growling voice throughout, and has perfected the art of looking angst-ridden. Vikander’s Isabel is initially a chirpy little soul, always playing with animals, skipping in the ocean froth or larking about with Tom. As Hannah, Weisz seems to depict her emotional dishevelment via her messy hair and a dislike of hats. When her daughter is returned to her, we can understand why she is not happy to stay.
There is simply very little in this story that rings true: from Tom and Isabel’s unlikely attraction to a baby surviving the night on the open seas, via a German run out of town and onto a rowing boat by the local xenophobes, the viewer is asked to stretch their credulity to breaking point. And Desplat’s score, rather than underlining or supporting the emotion of a scene, barges into it and refuses to leave until it has stomped all over it.
There is also the issue of Tom and Isabel’s isolation. We are told it is about 100 miles from the nearest town, yet the two seem to have regular visitors and make frequent trips to the mainland without us knowing who is looking after the lighthouse. There is no sense of isolation and neither do we really get to see the fascinating machinations of the lighthouse that keeps them there.
Derek Cianfrance is capable of making beautiful films, and there is beauty here, mainly via the cinematography focusing on the wild and ageless nature surrounding the characters. But where Blue Valentine left you in tears, and the flawed The Place Beyond the Pines engaged emotionally, this film leaves you cold. Here’s hoping Metalhead sees this talented director back on excellent form.