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Alicia Vikander, left, and Michael Fassbender in a scene from The Light Between Oceans. (Davi Russo/Dreamworks II via AP)
Alicia Vikander, left, and Michael Fassbender in a scene from The Light Between Oceans. (Davi Russo/Dreamworks II via AP)

review

The Light Between Oceans: Delicate beauty undone by a tragic plot Add to ...

  • Directed by Derek Cianfrance
  • Written by Derek Cianfrance (based on the novel by M. L. Stedman)
  • Starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz
  • Classification PG
  • Year 2016
  • Country USA
  • Language English

The greatest romantic dramas never end well. Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Out of Africa, The Way We Were, Titanic, Ghost, The English Patient, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Age of Innocence – not a happy ending in the bunch. They’re all about unanswered yearning, missed opportunity, might-have-been. So it’s not the sadness I object to in The Light Between Oceans. It’s that writer/director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), working from the bestselling novel by M. L. Stedman, hasn’t been able to overcome the narrative’s central problem: What the protagonists do is simply wrong, and their attempts to fix it are first tepid, then unpleasant.

It’s a shame, because things begin well. Tom (Michael Fassbender), a veteran emotionally scarred by the horrors of the First World War, takes refuge as the lighthouse keeper on a remote west Australian island. Luckily, the nearest (tiny) town is home to the lovely, spirited Isabel (Alicia Vikander) and the two do a very nice job of showing us how and why they fall in love. The scenes of their happy life on the island have a swoony, windswept beauty – until Isabel suffers first one miscarriage, then another. The first occurs in the middle of a raging storm, with Tom, unaware, in the lighthouse. Yet the second, with Tom by her side, is even more harrowing, due to Vikander’s mute, knee-buckling panic.

The above sets us up for a miracle: A rowboat washes ashore bearing a dead father and a living baby girl. Isabel fervently convinces Tom, against his better judgment, that they should pass her off as their own. Family bliss ensues – until they meet Hannah (Rachel Weisz), who lost her husband and baby at sea.

Until now, the movie has focused on character, and kudos to Cianfrance there for his casting. Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz are great actors, specific and smart, but you couldn’t call any of them warm. It’s a risk to trust a somewhat squishy story to prickly actors, but to this point, they give it backbone and depth.

From here, however, to its detriment, the film becomes all plot, an unrelieved series of unhappy decisions. That would be all right if Tom and Isabel continued to act and react in a unique way. But reversing Tolstoy’s dictum about unhappy families, tragedy makes this one generic. We lose sight of the particularities that made us care about them, and the delicate beauty they’ve constructed falls apart, like a wedding cake in the sea.

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