By: Muneeb Arshid
The end of August/beginning of September period is usually reserved for those films that are vying to enter the coveted Autumn Oscar season, but just don’t have the quality to be considered for those ranks. There are very few films, pre-September, that actually make it onto the awards ballots come January. One such film, which is so obviously trying to garner that exposure, is The Light Between Oceans.
Directed by Derek Cianfrance, who has most notably directed Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, this romantic drama is helmed by someone with considerable experience in the genre. However, the major difference this time around between the three films is that this film is a lot lighter, both tonally and visually. Whereas both Blue Valentine and Place Beyond the Pines have darker settings with very dark thematic situations, The Light Between the Oceans is filmed mostly during the day with the darkest bits being those scenes during massive storms. However, don’t mistake the beautiful oceanside vistas for the film to be any less heartbreaking than his past endeavours. But, relatively speaking, there are more happier bits in this film than in other Cianfrance ventures.
The film is a loose three-hander with a few supporting characters here and about. However, the focus of the film is directly on the two leads, Michael Fassbender as Tom Sherbourne and Alicia Vikander as Isabel Graysmark, a married couple who move out to a lighthouse off the coast of Western Australia at which Sherbourne is employed and oversees operations. Of course, after marriage post-Great War, couples tended to try and have kids, which is what Mr. and Mrs. Sherbourne try as well. However, as any great romantic drama is wont to incorporate, they experience complications through the birthing process and are not able to have any kids. Then, one day, Tom sees a lifeboat floating in the ocean with a dead man and his -still alive- little girl. The couple is able to save the girl but instead of reporting her to the authorities, they end up keeping her as their own because of favouring circumstances. The twist in the film comes in the form of Rachel Weisz who plays Hannah Roennfeldt, and delivers probably the performance of the film. Roennfeldt has a major connection with the little family which causes them distress to a point where Sherbourne has to make certain decisions for his little family, decisions that could have major implications in the future. Such is Weisz’s conviction in the role of a distraught mother that has to deal with many different emotions -ranging from a loss of family to possible redemption and finally having to make tough decisions where she is once again left in a position with nothing left but herself- that viewers will sympathize emotionally with her character.
Fassbender and Vikander are once again in terrific form, being cast together for the first time, and also playing a fictional couple while being a couple themselves in real-life. That sort of dynamic can usually cause the actors to act in one of two extreme ways: one, they can be brilliant, transferring their real-life chemistry onto the big screen, or two, things can go awry and none of their apparent chemistry is ever shown. Thankfully, the former case applies here, and the two show why they are phenomenal actors but at the same time show the love and respect they have for each other in real life, just basing it on their performances in the film. For Vikander, this is a relatively similar performance to the Oscar-winning performance she put in The Danish Girl, where her characters in both films are struck with emotional changes to the “extreme-th” end that they must overcome, the difference being the circumstances of each film.
I know I’m being very cryptic when it comes to revealing the twist of the film, however, it’s important that it’s kept that way just due to the nature of the genre itself. Because the film is so focused on the characters and the surroundings, the plot itself is a little on the thin side. Of course, the comparisons to the film being a possible Nicholas Sparks film are glaring at you, as it seems to be something primed to come from that stable of films. However, it is Cianfrance’s previous experience dealing with the genre, and making quality films that allow you to overcome the fact that this film is essentially a “higher quality Sparks film;” make what you will of that remark. That is not to say that the film is short if there isn’t a lot of plot occurring, as it clocks in at around 135 minutes. Due to this runtime, the film ends up dragging despite the great performances and the beautiful cinematography.
Speaking of the cinematography, imagine if the late Bob Ross had been tasked to paint the landscape of the Western Australian coastline post-WWI. Well, what you get on screen in this film is the film version of Ross’s possible canvas rendering. All of that credit goes to Adam Arkapaw. It’s not the hardest thing to capture the coastline and a solitary island with a lighthouse in a gorgeous manner. No, the hardest part is ensuring that the audience is going to be wowed by something that they have never seen before. Living in Vancouver allows you to witness vistas such as those on display in the film, yet to be amazed at the scenery even while living in Vancouver, is a compliment that attests to how truly gorgeous this film is. Accompanying the beautiful landscape is the soothing, very “Downton Abbey-ish” score by Alexandre Desplat, who is able to empower feelings of the period for those who have watched the award-winning show. Because the film is set post-WWI, it provides a sense that one has been transplanted from one form of media to another while keeping the period details intact, which is high praise.
For the most part, The Light Between Oceans is a successful film for its genre, and includes strong performances by the main leads but also significant performances by the supporting actors. The only issue for this film may end up being the release period itself, as it may have been released just too early to earn consideration for an Oscar (trust me, there will be a strong field this year).
The Light Between Oceans gets a very respectable grade of B (7.6/10).