Friday, September 2, 2016

Review: The Light Between Oceans

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
Often visually breathtaking and sensitively acted, Derek Cianfrance's "The Light Between Oceans" - based on M.L. Stedman's novel - is a picture that has several key elements working in its favor and yet doesn't quite gel as it should. The director's previous works have been intense dramas about emotionally brutal romantic relationships ("Blue Valentine") or multi-generational crime sagas ("The Place Beyond the Pines") that packed a punch, but his latest is missing something.

One of the film's biggest problems is that while it's obvious that Cianfrance and company are going for restraint here, the film is often so emotionally distant - at least, at first - almost to the point of not registering. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander - and, later, Rachel Weisz, whose character is introduced about halfway through - are all good here, but it's obvious that they've been told to dial it down and the result is a story that doesn't have the emotional heft of Cianfrance's previous films.

As the film opens, World War I veteran Tom (Fassbender) has taken a job as a lighthouse keeper, insisting that, after the traumas of combat, a little isolation won't be the worst thing for him. But his solitude is short lived after he meets a young woman named Isabel (Vikander), with whom he falls in love and marries. However, their happiness is also short lived as the couple tries twice, but fails, to conceive, leaving Isabel emotionally scarred.

So it seems like a gift from the heavens or just good luck that a boat washes up on shore near the lighthouse that bears a dead man and an infant girl. Against his good judgment, Tom allows himself to be convinced by Isabel, to whom the baby signifies a turn of good fortune, not to report the incident. They keep the child, whom they name Lucy, and raise her as their own.

Several years pass and - wouldn't you know it - Tom runs across a sad woman named Hannah (Weisz), the daughter of a wealthy landowner, whose German husband and infant daughter were lost at sea several years prior. This begins to nag at Tom and he eventually makes a choice that results in his and Isabel's lives taking a turn for the worse.

"The Light Between Oceans" is at its best when the filmmakers pause to allow us to take in the gorgeous vistas that are accompanied by a great soundtrack of howling winds and crashing waves. The drama involving the three - or four, if you count Lucy - central characters is slow in picking up momentum. Eventually, it does and the picture ends with a coda that is more emotionally satisfying than anything leading up to it. It's the type of haunting ending that could have provided a powerful finale to a great film, whereas here it's more of a reminder of how uneven this one is.

Cianfrance is undoubtedly a talent. "Blue Valentine" was an unsettling film about a crumbling relationship, while "The Place Beyond the Pines" was an ambitious crime drama that cracked my top 10 of the year it was released. His latest is far from a bad movie. It's often beautiful to look at and the performances are subtle but effective. The film is ultimately a mixed bag, but it's the type of near-miss that you can tell has been made by a gifted person.

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