If you read the book you might find the film a great disappointment.
The film, “The Light Between Oceans”, is a maudlin, self-consciously manipulative tear-jerker. But the book, beautifully written by M.L. Steadman, is a dreamy, luminous love story that stays with you long after you’ve finished reading it.
Michael Fassbender, who plays a decorated soldier named Tom Sherbourne, comes home to Australia in 1918, after the First World War has ended. Originally from Sydney, a large, busy city in the east, he chooses to go instead to a small town, Partageuse, on the far west coast to be alone to deal with his traumatic memories of the war.
To that end he applies for a job on a lonely, isolated island 100 miles offshore as the keeper of the Janus Rock lighthouse. When advised that it is a tougher job than he might expect, he replies, “It’s not likely to be tougher than the Western Front…”
Before he leaves, however, he meets a charming young woman, Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), and through their letters and occasional meetings they fall in love. (This part of the story became a reality when the two actors became a real-life couple. They now live together in London.)
Eventually they marry and she joins him at Janus Rock, which she learns to love as much as he does, and their life is blissful and busy. But they are unsuccessful in trying to have a baby. She endures two agonizing miscarriages (in the book she has three) and becomes despondent. And then a miracle occurs: a small boat drifts onto their shore carrying a live baby girl and a dead man whom they presume is her father.
Isabel is immediately determined to keep the infant as their own, but Tom resists, arguing that it would be against the law as well as immoral to not report the event, or the dead man, to the authorities on the mainland. But Isabel’s tears prevail, and eventually he agrees to keep the baby.
Four tranquil years go by before the plot unravels and the little girl, whom they have named Lucy, is returned to her birth mother and Tom is indicted for the murder of the dead man in the boat.
From this point on, the story takes many twists and turns before it concludes and it is gripping until the very end, when the oh-too-sweet ending seeks to inveigle one last weep from its exhausted audience.
Unfortunately, the book ends the same way, but you can forgive M.L. Steadman for overdoing it because her writing is so rich and compelling. But the script of the movie and the directing, both by Derek Cianfrance, can’t be dismissed that easily. Mostly because the sound track is mushy and uneven and the photography even more so.
Shot on New Zealand and Tasmania by Adam Arkapaw, the film has an ample supply of beautiful scenery and for the most part it is sharp and clear—outdoors. But inside, the lighting is so bad that many of the scenes become unviewable. They are dark and smoky, as if they were shot through a fog, even though the actual fog shots outdoors are clear and clean. And the initial love scene was shot in such intense closeup and in such foggy non-light as to render it meaningless. Moreover, there is one scene in which Fassbender sits in front of a window through which the sunlight pours in and the shot, straight into the sun, distorts the view of him and blurs whatever he is saying. Also, there are several shots where light streaks flare across the film.
I understand that in the ‘20s and ‘30s, when films were only in black and white, directors used to fiddle with the lighting and the focus to emphasize the action and emotions of the characters. But that technique doesn’t enhance scenes shot in blazing Technicolor. In fact, I found the rendering of this film so annoying and distracting that I forgot to cry.
“The Light Between Oceans” opened last Friday in selected theaters around Los Angeles and will open wide very soon.
By Cynthia Citron