The Light Between Oceans Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz. Directed by Derek Cianfrance. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.
Picturesque gloom overwhelms illumination in The Light Between Oceans, a ferociously acted but increasingly overwrought period melodrama directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines). Adapted from M.L. Stedman’s 2012 novel, the film, set between 1918 and about 1927, stars Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander as Tom and Isabel, a somewhat tenuously married couple—he proposes to her mostly out of loneliness, it seems—who live on a tiny island off the coast of Australia, where Tom mans a lighthouse. Isabel desperately wants a child, but keeps suffering miscarriages, so when a rowboat containing a man’s corpse and a live infant washes ashore, she decides to keep the baby as her own, over Tom’s objections. When they inevitably visit the mainland, however, it takes them almost no time to identify the child’s actual mother, a woman named Hannah (Rachel Weisz). An exceedingly grim custody battle ensues, waged not in court but within the quivering hearts of all concerned.
Cianfrance tends to be drawn to emotional extremes, but Stedman’s book arguably provides him with too much raw material—or, rather, with material that’s just too raw. While all three of the lead actors commit wholeheartedly to the truth of each moment, they don’t have characters to play so much as they have states of mind to represent. Fassbender, in particular, struggles to find layers to Tom’s brooding, which stems from the carnage he experienced fighting in World War I. As the movie heads into its second half, it grows more and more soapy, which retroactively starts to make all the stark seaside imagery feel like an effort to turn Nicholas Sparks into Thomas Hardy. The Light Between Oceans is the sort of well-intentioned art film that makes you feel like you’re being punished. At least it’s quieter punishment than superhero movies offer.