After the end of the First World War, former soldier Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes a job as the keeper of an isolated lighthouse off the coast of Australia. While he’s hoping for some time alone, he’s surprised to find romance with the young Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who soon becomes his wife. Their happiness on the remote island is hampered by the fact she loses several children during pregnancy.
Fate then intervenes when a boat washes up on the shore with a dead man and a live baby in it. While Tom knows he must signal the mainland about this unexpected development, his wife realises that if they stay silent, no one is likely to question whether the child was theirs or not. After deciding to keep the baby girl, Tom accidentally discovers whose child it really is, and that there’s a grieving mother on the mainland.
Wracked with guilt, Tom decides to send the woman, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), a message letting her know her child is safe. However, this eventually leads to Tom and Isabel’s life unravelling, and they must face the moral repercussions of the decisions they’ve made.
With The Light Between Oceans, there’s a constant sense that you’re watching something that’s okay, but there’s a better film struggling to get out. It hints at interesting ideas that it never really explores, and is fascinated by the moral questions it raises, while ignoring some of the things that actually make things more complex than it wants to deal with.
Director Derek Cianfrance seems most interested in the moral grey areas the film gets into in its second half, but the movie rather undercuts that by finding slightly corny ways out of the situations it gets itself into. It’s a movie where there are moments when some of the characters flirt with being irredeemable due to what they’ve done, but in order to get them out of that situation, the movie goes for easy options. Ultimately, in its quest to seem hopeful, it ends up suggesting that baby stealing is an oddly romantic thing to do. As a result, it’s difficult not to feel that it relies on a lot of contrivance to get to the places it does, and doesn’t fully deal with all the issues it raises.
That probably wouldn’t have been so much of a problem if Cianfrance had sped things up a little. However, in spending a long time building up the romance between Tom and Isabel, as well as spending plenty of time being enamoured with the admittedly beautiful scenery and cinematography, it leaves a little too much space for the audience to realise that something about the story doesn’t quite smell right. The first half of the movie is gorgeous and sometimes oddly mesmerising, but it still can’t quite overcome the flaws.
Thankfully, the cast is excellent, with Fassbender and Vikander bringing real emotion and depth to their characters and the love between them. Likewise, Rachel Weisz does extremely well to raise what could have been a rather thankless role into the realms of something else. Although there are times when the film threatens to make her a plaster saint, Weisz gives is far more complexity than it might otherwise have had.
Ultimately though, it feels like a watchable movie that’s trapped between two worlds – not just two oceans. The film at once wants to be a heart-breaking romance, and a morally complex drama about the potentially rash things people do and the consequences of it. It’s okay as both, but never quite becomes transcendent as either. In the special features, the cast talk about the rather open way Cianfrance approaches his films, which works extremely well for the romantic parts of the movie, but feels a little too loose in the more dramatic parts. The result is a movie that at various points underlines exactly what emotions it’s expecting the audience to feel, but many viewers will find they’re not feeling that, and can’t shake the sense they’re being sold something that doesn’t quite stack up.
Overall Verdict: A beautiful movie that initially works well as a romance, but when it tries to get into the morally grey areas of the character’s actions ends up feeling contrived and corny.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac