CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism

The Light Between Oceans (2016) Film Review

Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Written by: Derek Cianfrance
Based on the book by: M.L. Stedman
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson
Produced by: David Heyman, Jeffrey Clifford
Executive-Produced by: Jonathan King, Jeff Skoll, Tom Karnowski, Rosie Alison
Music by: Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography by: Adam Arkapaw
Editing by: Jim Helton, Ron Patane


“He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody”


When you first see Michael Fassbender as the veteran Tom Sherbourne in The Light Between Oceans, the light has gone from his wide blue eyes. You notice the quietus and the pausing, his failure to answer certain direct questions about his past as a soldier in the World War, and above all, his near-handsomeness (made “near” only by the proto-masculine caterpillar mustache loitering on his face.) The Fassbender within Sherbourne is not the one to whom you’ve become accustomed, full of an outrageous inner fire that made him so lusty, brilliant and brazen in Shame, Hunger, Fish Tank, and 12 Years a Slave. This is a character whose fire has burnt so low that even the cerulean of his irises is dulled. When you see him, he is nowhere to be seen.

In addition to the Irish actor who portrays him, Sherbourne is a co-creation between the novelist M.L. Stedman, from whose book this film is adapted, and the adaptor himself, the writer/director Derek Cianfrance. You may recall this filmmaker’s two previous features, both exquisite in their ways: the so-fucked-up-you’ll-never-watch-it-again divorce drama Blue Valentine; and the expansive, erratic The Place Beyond the Pines. Cianfrance is both actor’s director and aesthete, a truly gifted synthesizer of beauty and emotion whose films sit within the audience’s memory in bits and bobs forever (just reading of him, you likely hear Ryan Gosling’s ukulele serenade to Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine or see Gosling’s shock of blonde hair in Pines.)

It is within the DNA of The Light Between Oceans, as a result, to be both brilliantly acted and magnificent to look at, while all but guaranteeing a certain measure of acclaim.

So why, you ask yourself, has the new movie not received the same critical adulation nor stuck in the craws of independent film lovers as the previous works? Here is an absolutely luminous array of photography by Adam Arkapaw, cobbled together from the dramatic sequences and almost perfect B-roll – which consists of the most beautiful images of the ocean since Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s work on The Master – that never fails to stimulate the eye. And within it, too, are three performances of great depth and beauty, both physical and hyper-human: from Fassbender; Alicia Vikander as Sherbourne’s baby-less bride Isabel Graysmark; and Rachel Weisz as the Australian woman whose German husband and child go suddenly missing at sea, only to be found and raised by the Sherbournes on Janus Rock. The island has oceans on both sides, and Tom and Isabel strand themselves there as the lighthouse keeper and his homemaker.

The couple’s ruse, if it can be called that, ends, and the young child in question becomes caught in a tug-of-war for her parentage. There are first the tenets of early twentieth century Australian etiquette to observe, warped as they were by the recent pull-out of British tycoonism and Captain Cook adoration. This forces the Sherbournes to confront their thievery, though one member of the couple is far more willing. Then there is the inimitable Weisz: as Hannah Roennfeldt, she projects the anxieties of a mother equally ill-prepared to be with and without her child. Her performance is particularly breathtaking when you recall that she’s had the most bounteous of years, with The Lobster, Complete Unknown, and Denial all released within a year of one another. In all, you expect plaudits and bouquets, gracious adoration and praise for a project with this pedigree and these world-class actors. Yet if you have awaited these reactions, you have been greatly disappointed. Again, you ask: why?

It is best not to comment on the novel without having read it, but the film is certainly a languorous experience, especially in the off-rhythm cutting by Cianfrance’s editorial team, Jim Helton and Ron Patane. That hearsay and gossip are such forces in the unraveling of the Sherbourne family – first from miscarriages, then from the “stealing” of Roennfeldt’s daughter – is no surprise, given that your final perception of the movie is of a tragic folktale that continues to grow in gossipy detail and length with the years. Unlike in Blue Valentine or Pines, the narrative is here very linear, almost too directly told (for these filmmakers, this is an especially sad change.) Gone is the epic and challenging experimental structure of Pines; and for all the muck made of their tender real-life relationship, the romance between Fassbender and Vikander’s characters does not quite reach the magnificent blossom of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams’s imaginary one from 6 years ago. What you have is still tremendous as acting goes, no doubt, but it amounts merely to an impressive facsimile of Cianfrance’s previous work.

You might consider this theory. Walt Disney Studios distributed the picture, which was produced in part by DreamWorks. In this it is Cianfrance’s first non-independently-produced film, and perhaps for that reason it is also not independently-conceived. The Light Between Oceans is counter-programming of the highest order, developed by these companies to avoid the glut of their true money-makers, like Zootopia or Queen of Katwe and all the semi-animated and emotionally underdeveloped pictures in between. For them, Cianfrance exhibits the signs of a Spielberg or a Mira Nair-in-the-making, an aggressively well-learned and visual director who can tear at the heart with a single image. They are right to trust this great filmmaker with their money; but they also thought that under the restrictions money creates that another Place Beyond the Pines – which made three times its budget in domestic box office, says Wikipedia – was possible with him. They seem to have overgambled.