This weekend I made one of my rare visits to the cinema to see the new film by Derek Cianfrance, “The Light Between Oceans”, starring Michael Fassbinder, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz. Although I will avoid spoilers in this review, both the trailer and even the most basic of reviews give away the plot, so the reader will forgive me if I make certain references to it. Overall, while I was captivated and drawn in by what seemed to be an Oscar-worthy movie at first, by the end I was more interested in how much longer it was going to take to reach the inevitable conclusion of what had turned into a high-quality TV soap opera.
The first half of the film, which is set in Post-WWI Australia, is unquestionably a visual and cinematic masterpiece. Director and Screenwriter Derek Cianfrance is clearly well-versed in the work of two Swedes, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and artist Anders Zorn. Much of the cinematography reminded me of Bergman’s films and Zorn’s paintings, and the end result is absolutely stunning to watch on the big screen. The script, based on the novel of the same name by M.L. Stedman, recalls the work of François Mauriac and Thomas Hardy, who often explored themes of people who are good at heart becoming overwhelmed by bad choices and unfortunate circumstances. Over the course of the first hour or so, not only do we fall in love with the people and the places on screen, but we really come to feel for them when personal tragedies begin to cloud their otherwise picture-perfect lives.
Both Tom and Isabel, played by Fassbinder and Vikander, respectively, are wonderfully realized characters in this part of the movie. Perhaps because the two began their real-life relationship while working on the film, their emotional attachment is clearly visible. Clichéd though it may be, the story of actors falling in love with each other while playing lovers on screen exists for a reason. Fassbinder is wonderfully rigid and reserved as Tom, and Vikander is a perfect foil with her sunny, girl-next-door quality, which helps to bring the war-hardened Tom out of his shell.
One of the great strengths of the film is its significant reliance on Christian imagery and themes, although it is not an explicitly Christian movie. For example, we see Tom engaged in silent prayer at the end of a hard day, using a cold and heavy anvil as a prie-dieu. It is also a symbol of the hardness of heart which Tom is praying to get over after the horrors of war, for he has been wounded spiritually, rather than physically. In one of the most haunting moments of the film, the inconsolable Isabel goes to mourn over her dead children at their graves, and puts her head to the ground to see if she can hear them crying. I was immediately reminded of Jeremiah 31:15 – “This is what the LORD says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
The title of the film refers to the lighthouse where much of the first part of the movie takes place, and the island where the lighthouse stands clearly represents a kind of Eden. Like the first man, Tom is initially there alone with his thoughts, but makes the place a kind of peaceful haven. Later, when Isabel becomes his wife, it becomes a true paradise for them both. They have little contact with the world beyond the oceans which surround them, other than the visit every few weeks from an ancient, bearded fisherman, who bring supplies and messages. Yet once they make a decision that will alter the course of their lives, the two are expelled from their Eden, and neither they nor the audience will ever see it again.
Their sinful choice, and the subsequent expulsion of this particular Adam and Eve from Paradise, serve as a powerful metaphor for the Fall from Grace. As in Genesis, we see Eve persuade Adam to do something that they both know is wrong, and to ignore the consequences of their actions. It is their conscious, mutual choice to do wrong, and then to try to cover themselves up, which like the original Adam and Eve causes them to be cast out of Eden. If you are trying to wrap your head around the concept of Original Sin, the film does a magnificent job of putting that concept into reality.
Unfortunately, for all the fine acting and beautiful seascapes up to this point, the second half of the film does not live up to the promise of the first. Perhaps this is intentional, because once you are thrown out of Paradise, everything else is going to seem a petty disappointment. Yet after Tom and Isabel’s sin is discovered, I kept waiting for a payoff that never came. Part of this seems to be the director’s inability to figure out what to do with all of the characters he has to introduce for the remainder of the movie.
The character of Hannah (Rachel Weisz) dominates much of the latter half of the film. Yet for most of her time on screen I felt as though Weisz was dialing it in; she seemed more like the guest star on a decent BBC drama, rather than an Oscar-winning actress. Equally unfortunate is the limited amount of screen time given to Hannah’s father, played by legendary Australian actor Bryan Brown, the star of classics such as “F/X”, “The Thorn Birds”, and “Gorillas in the Mist”. One gets the sense that his character originally had more involvement in the film, but that many of his lines and scenes got tossed onto the editing room floor.
Perhaps most fatal of all, for all of their captivating qualities early on, was that by the end I did not much care what happened to Tom and Isabel. A plot twist that a studio-era director like George Cukor or Joseph Mankiewicz would have used to provide Vikander with the opportunity to really show her range (and secure herself an Oscar nomination) is utterly lost. I kept thinking of how Golden Age actresses like Ingrid Bergman or Bette Davis would have handled the shift in attitude between Tom and Isabel, and finding that Vikander just comes up short. And Tom, who ultimately has brought them both low, does not seem to handle the lines given to him in this situation as well as would, for example, a Gary Cooper or James Stewart in the same role.
In the end, mine is a mixed review. The first hour or so of the film is wonderfully acted and beautifully shot, and given the vastness of the seascapes I doubt that the better half of the film will play as well streaming on the small screen. Fassbinder and Vikander are wonderful together, and remind the viewer at times of actors in Classic Hollywood and Art House love stories. That being said, because of the average melodrama which makes up the remainder of the movie, I would suggest that this film is more appropriately seen at an afternoon matinee, rather than for a night out.