Blue Valentine, writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s second feature film, struck me on its release in 2010 as one of the most exciting breakthroughs from a young American filmmaker in years. Cianfrance used an unusual method in preparing for the shoot: For a month before cameras rolled, the film’s co-stars, Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, lived—along with the young actress who played their daughter—in the rural Pennsylvania house where most of the movie was filmed. They survived on an allowance of no more than what their characters, a nurse and a housepainter, would make in that time. After those weeks of cohabitation-as-rehearsal, the shoot itself was completed very quickly, with lots of room for improvisation on set and many shots captured in a single, hand-held take. The result was a raw, rough, and intimate love story of the kind that’s too seldom seen on screen—a portrait of a crumbling marriage in which neither spouse is the villain, and whose dissolution is framed neither as a tragedy nor a triumph but simply as one of those awful but necessary things that sometimes happens.
In his fourth film, The Light Between Oceans, Cianfrance returns to some similar ground, again filming with a minimal cast in an isolated domestic setting—albeit on a much grander visual scale and with a significantly larger budget this time. (The movie that came in between, the crime saga The Place Beyond the Pines, was an honorable overreach.) Based on a best-selling (and notoriously tear-jerking) novel by the Australian writer M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans is Cianfrance’s first attempt at a literary adaptation. While this sparse and spacious film nimbly avoids many of the standard conventions that can weigh adaptations down—there’s no first-person voice-over, no long parlor conversations clarifying plot points—it falls victim to some others, especially during an overhasty, plot-twist-crammed epilogue. Still, Cianfrance’s gift for allowing his actors to create relationships—with one another, with the camera, and with the stark landscape that surrounds them—makes The Light Between Oceans an unusually captivating romantic drama, at least until that last-act slide into self-sabotaging bathos.
Was there ever an actor more self-evidently born to play a melancholy lighthouse keeper than Michael Fassbender? That’s the profession of Tom Sherbourne, a reserved World War I vet whom we first meet in 1918 taking a lonely position on an island off the coast of Western Australia. (In fact the film was shot at the tip of New Zealand’s South Island, where the landscape is a starkly beautiful outcropping of steep, jagged cliffs surrounded by vast expanses of water.) For months at a time Tom must live alone in a small house at the base of a steep wooden staircase, which he ascends every night to light and maintain a gas lamp in the lighthouse tower.
Every once in a while Tom makes a provisioning visit to the nearest town on the mainland. There he gets to know Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), a vibrant young woman who lost two brothers in the war. After a short courtship instigated mainly by the unconventionally assertive Isabel, she comes to the ominously named Janus Rock as Tom’s bride. After a few besotted months of life at the lighthouse, Isabel finds herself pregnant, but she loses the baby—and then, heart-wrenchingly, another baby—to late-term miscarriage.
Only days after Tom has planted the small wooden cross marking the grave of their second unborn child, a coincidence occurs that might come straight from an ancient fairy tale (or, to be less generous, a Nicholas Sparks–style wish-fulfillment fantasy). A small boat washes up onto the island, containing a dead man and a live and unharmed female baby. After confirming that the craft’s adult occupant is beyond help and entrusting the infant to his wife’s care, Tom heads for the lighthouse to send out a Morse code distress signal. But Isabel, convinced in her grief that this child has been heaven-sent as a replacement for those they’ve lost, persuades Tom to bury the man’s body, raise the child as their own, and never tell anyone from the mainland about her second miscarriage. Before long they are both deeply attached to the little girl, whom they name Lucy.
On the day of Lucy’s christening on the mainland, Tom spots a woman dressed in mourning praying at a grave marker in the churchyard. It’s Hannah (Rachel Weisz), a local widow who, Tom quickly figures out, lost her husband and daughter to an accident at sea at about the same time little Lucy drifted into their lives. Tormented by guilt, Tom finds himself drawn to reveal his child’s true identity—but Isabel regards any gesture toward the grief-stricken Hannah as a betrayal. Like Lord and Lady Macbeth—a couple Fassbender played one-half of last year—Tom and Isabel share a guilty secret that both bonds and divides them. How they deal differently with their shared misdeed, and how those choices affect their small child and her biological mother, provide for the struggle of the film’s second half.
Though its storyline makes it easy to dismiss as a weepy costume melodrama, The Light Between Oceans strikes a tone that’s more emotionally direct and psychologically “modern” than most romantic dramas set in the past. Tom, Isabel and Hannah, impossibly gorgeous though they are, never seem like stock representative types: the stiff-upper-lip war vet, the twice-bereaved young mother, the devastated widow. Rather, they’re dynamic and unpredictable individuals, capable of both merciful and selfish acts. This specificity of character seems to come less from Cianfrance’s script (which is spare to the point of wordless in many key scenes) than from the unusually sensitive performances of, and rich relationships among, the three leads. Fassbender and Vikander make their deep dependence on one another as tangible as their equally deep differences. Weisz gets a handful of hanky-worthy scenes at the movie’s climax, though her character’s arc is one of the elements that feels most truncated by the rushed and choppy coda.
Enthusiasts of the Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu coined the term “pillow shot” for the insert shots of natural elements—the wind in the trees, birds sitting on telephone wires—that he liked to place in between dramatic scenes to give the audience’s attention a chance to rest. The Light Between Oceans is a veritable Bed, Bath, and Beyond of pillow shots, with lengthy takes of the ever-shifting seascape around Janus Rock padding the spaces between every human interaction. The resulting stately, at times indulgent pacing (it’s 132 minutes long), in combination with composer Alexandre Desplat’s effulgent score, may make The Light Between Oceans feel too emo by half for some moviegoers.
But there’s an admirable boldness to Cianfrance’s take-no-prisoners assault on the viewer’s heart. His actors aren’t afraid to get down in the human muck of longing, guilt, grief, and uncertainty. For the audience to observe from an unaffected height, declaring ourselves immune to the tawdry pull of “melodrama,” would be to live under the same illusion as Fassbender’s reclusive Tom in this movie’s early scenes. Believing he already knows how all love stories turn out, Tom almost misses out on the chance to experience one that reminds him that, for better or worse, there is still such a thing as surprise.