“The Light Between Oceans” has pictorial beauty in a David Lean sort of way and a mesmerizing quality that might convince a viewer this somewhat contrived and emotionally manipulative tale has real credibility.
If those elements don’t work for you, then you might enjoy three stalwart performances from the hugely watchable cast of Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz under the steady guidance of director Derek Cianfrance. Plus the gossip that Fassbender and Vikander became an item during the shoot.
So this is not a picture one can easily dismiss such as “The Suicide Squad.” It’s striving to get to you emotionally but to do so with well-rounded, fully human characters along with a vivid depiction of a time and place in history that feels true.
Sometimes you don’t mind being “had” by such manipulation. But I wouldn’t want to call “The Light Between Oceans” a satisfying experience. It feels like fiction with each moment dovetailing into the next to create a pattern wherein coincidence and literary alchemy contrive to lead one down a well-plotted path to a preordained conclusion.
The movie certainly begins with promise when Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender), a withdrawn, shell-shocked veteran of the Great War (World War I), flees civilization for a job as a lighthouse keeper on an uninhabited island a half-day’s journey by boat from a remote seacoast village in Western Australia. Here he finds the solitude he so desperately seeks.
In that town, however, he also finds a vivacious young woman Isabel Graysmark (Vikander), herself struggling with the loss of two brothers in the War. They are, in the precise scheme of things here, destined for one another — with Isabel’s passion for life and family reviving the stoic ex-soldier who has known only death for years.
Like so many aspects of the ensuing drama, this romance is a little too neat and prescribed to entirely ring true.
Soon they marry and journey back to the windswept island called Janus Rock, named for the two-faced Roman God of endings and beginnings. This couple is thus caught between the end of war’s horror and the beginning of a future together.
But their attempt to start a family ends in tragedy as Isabel suffers two miscarriages. (Why her husband, after the first such episode, doesn’t think to send his pregnant wife back to her home town, where a doctor or midwife might see to her care, is a mystery.)
Then, even as Isabel is staring in despair at two gravesides, a rowboat washes ashore. Inside, miraculously, is a dead man but a live, crying baby. Isabel wants to keep the infant as their own, but Tom, in both his official capacity and as a man who survived a war by doing the right things, is hesitant.
He finally gives in to his wife’s fervent pleas but he perhaps thinks — and the viewer absolutely knows — trouble lies ahead. For this infant no doubt has her own grieving mother.
The movie, adapted from the 2012 novel by the London-based, Australia-bred writer M.L. Stedman, then follows the storyline through four years of the life of the child, named Lucy, and a few predictable twists and heart-wrenching decisions.
On one of their occasional trips to the mainland Tom realizes, quite by accident but the kind this story revels in, who the true mother is: Hannah Roennfeldt (Weisz), an heiress estranged from her family who believes she lost both her husband, who was German-born and therefore despised by townsfolk following the war, and her child at sea.
On a second visit, Isabel makes the same discovery. Once they both know, a moral reckoning looms. They are now, plain as day, kidnappers. Yet Lucy (played at this age by Florence Clery) knows them only as her loving parents.
This unfolds at a leisurely pace with time enough for cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s Lean-like vistas of Janus Rock’s rock formations, beaches, lighthouse and that small cottage where the cozy family nestles.
Alexandre Desplat’s sumptuous score, one that sometimes drowns out the dialogue, provides a slightly melancholy mood. The wind frequently blows on the soundtrack (another dialogue suppressant) and the tiny island, the remote bay across the waters and an ever-changing sky make everything as seemingly idyllic as the couple’s relationship with one another and with their purloined child.
Director Cianfrance professes a bias for themes about intimacy and family. He directed the acclaimed 2010 Sundance film “Blue Valentine,” an inventive then-and-now portrait of a marriage in free fall, and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” a father-son story I have not seen. Here he has been drawn to a story about the secrets within a marriage that can bind but also unwind that relationship.
The tension in the movie comes not from the fear the couple’s secret will come undone — any viewer will assume this almost immediately — but how and why. The movie then turns more toward legal procedures but the emotional element is never lost. Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz do fine work in their intimate scenes as the film explores themes of sacrifice, forgiveness and conflicted emotions.
“Light” is smart in many ways and clearly attracted a dream cast. Production values (the film was actually shot in New Zealand) are stellar. Cianfrance, who in writing the script followed the novel closely, tends to round off rough edges at times and can never shake that unsatisfying sense of contrivance he inherited from the book. The film perhaps needed to be a little messier and the characters less idealized.
Opens: September 2, 2016 (DreamWorks Pictures)
Production companies: DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment present in association with Participant Media a Heyday Films production
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery, Jack Thompson, Thomas Unger, Jane Menelaus, Garry McDonald, Bryan Brown, Leon Ford
Director/screenwriter: Derek Cianfance
Based on the novel by: M.L. Stedman’s novel
Producers: David Heyman, Jeffrey Clifford
Executive producers: Tom Karnowski, Rosie Alison, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King
Director of photography: Adam Arkapaw
Production designer: Karen Murphy
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: Erin Benach
Editors: Ron Patane, Jim Helton
PG-13 rating, 132 min.