I’ve never seen a movie that started this slow get this much slower.
Based on M.L. Stedman’s 2012 novel, The Light Between Oceans follows Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) as he returns home to Australia from World War I. Looking to get away from it all, Sherbourne takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on an isolated island off the western coast, but falls in love and marries a maiden from the mainland, Isabel (Alicia Vikander). The couple lives mostly in bliss, but after two traumatic miscarriages, Isabel has gone straight-up baby crazy. When a dingy washes up from the mainland with a dead man and an infant inside, Isabel convinces Tom to not report it and raise the child as their own. Years later, they the consequences of their decision when they learn of Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), the child’s biological mother who never stopped looking for her.
The reason to be hyped about this movie is the level of talent involved. Fassbender and Vikander are two of the finest actors in the world, and writer/director Derek Cianfrance is the guy behind Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, and they all do deliver.
The film is gorgeously composed and shot. It isn’t as striking as some of the year’s other dazzlers like Nerve or The Neon Demon, but pretty much every shot is intriguing, dramatic and worth looking at. It’s brilliantly paced, for the most part, and effectively portrays the weight of passing years.
Fassbender’s excellence is understated at this point, but there isn’t enough you can say about Vikander. She trained as a ballerina from age 9, and with several lead roles under her belt now, what’s really astonishing is the level of control she has over her body. When she takes a role, she creates a distinct body language and uses it to wholly become another person. Her every motion, down to the smallest twitch, is intentional and calculated but completely effortless at the same time. It’s the highest level of acting, and The Light Between Oceans gives her endless room to run with it.
The problem is the story. This is a very difficult story to tell cinematically, and they make a valiant effort that doesn’t come up short until late in the movie, but it skews the whole thing. It’s kind of a Nicholas Sparks knockoff, a purely dramatic romance novel set during the World Wars with lots of letter writing and — this is kind of a spoiler, but it’s not really part of the story — a bit at the end where they get old and die, because that’s how humans work.
The story sweeps through several different acts and central conflicts — the baby isn’t even introduced until about halfway through. These acts are subtly divided into their own short stories, and though the film is almost painfully slow, the frequent feeling that one story has ended and another has begun keeps it fresh. But the last act drags on, and it all falls apart. The segmentation that had maintained the film’s momentum unravels, and it finally starts to feel as brutally slow as it is.
The Light Between Oceans is a rewarding and visually rich movie, but it can’t be recommended because a lot of people are going to fall asleep watching it.
The story isn’t the problem. That’s an excuse, and this is a creative team I want to make excuses for, but that doesn’t fix the movie. The story is never the problem, only the way it’s told. Cianfrance found a great way to tell this story, but he didn’t bring it all the way home, and it suffers mightily because of it.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.