The onscreen chemistry between Vikander and Fassbinder result in something that’s absolutely electric to witness.
Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) thinks that in order for someone to be in love with him they must have a head full of rocks. After having served in World War I, Tom seeks out a job that allows him solitude as he seems to be the type to find comfort in single living. After accepting a job at as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a remote island off the coast of Australia, he’s warned by his employer that the isolation that comes with job can take a toll on one’s psyche. It’s best to settle down with a wife and children if you are to be a lighthouse keeper. Tom seems to pay little mind to this bit of advice. He’s not interested in anyone who would seek out him has a companion—or so he thinks.
Soon after Tom arrives at Janus Rock and begins his adjust to a life of solitude, he visits a nearby town to see the local school’s headmaster. That’s where he meets his destiny: a woman named Isabel Graysmark (the unstoppable Alicia Vikander). Isabel is instantly captivated by Tom. She looks at him as if she’s known him her whole life; their instant chemistry takes on a palpable form. Even Tom, in all his self-loathing and shyness, can’t deny it, but luckily he doesn’t have to, for Isabel arranges a date with him before he has the chance to say no. They bond over shared pain the war brought them, and how broken they both feel as a result. Isabel’s vigor, her assertive ways, and her undeniable wit pull Tom closer to her. Her head isn’t stuffed with rubble, and her passion for life—which is present even when she talks of her sorrows with Tom—seems to awaken something in him that he thought died in the war.
Soon Tom and Isabel are married, and she moves to Janus Rock without a second thought. Tom is unsure if living on the rock will bring her happiness, but he loves her so deeply that he gives in to her wishes. The two live happily together for some time, but there are limits to the palliative love can be. After a few violent episodes, it becomes apparent the couple cannot have children. This realization brings them a deep sense of grief, which Isabel has the toughest time adjusting to.
So when a rowboat with a dead man and infant child washes ashore, Isabel insists that they keep the child. They can start their own family, and give the baby a home. Tom is a virtuous man. He wants to please his wife and he yearns to start a family with her, but his judgement tells him they should report the child to the authorities. The decisions they make causes serious ramifications between each other and the inhabitants of the nearby town in a film that is just as much about the impact of ethical decisions we make as much as it is about how we heal from them.
It’s tough to imagine anyone in the role of Tom other than Michael Fassbender. He always brings an intellectual weight to his roles and appears to be a very calculated performer, making Tom Scherbourne a very natural role for him to slip into. If this wasn’t adapted from a novel, I’d believe that Derek Cianfrance wrote the role specifically for him. Cast against him is Alicia Vikander, who is a heady presence with these big, expressive eyes that suggest a great emotional fortitude within her. She is one of the most engaging young actresses working at the moment. Just as you can feel the weight of Fassbender’s mind in every frame, surely you can feel the vivaciousness of Vikander’s heart.
I’m of the opinion that Vikander steals The Danish Girl from Eddie Redmayne, who is easily one of the best actors working today. I would say that she did it here again in The Light Between Oceans, but instead of distracting from Fassbender, the two seem to elevate each other in scenes. It seems likely this film will result in Oscar nominations for both actors. You don’t have to take it from me, though. The truth comes through in every frame they are on screen together: You’re watching two people fall in love. Just like he did with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine, Cianfrance had Fassbender and Vikander live together for six weeks on set. Before the end of production, the two were dating, and still are as of this writing.
The onscreen chemistry between Vikander and Fassbinder result in something that’s absolutely electric to witness. Their best scenes together are contained to the first third of the film, and naturally, this is when the movie is at its strongest. Once the baby is introduced and subsequent drama follows, the film starts to become a slave to its thematic elements and loses focus of what Cianfrance does best: exploring the emotional landscapes of all its players. Things start to feel more hurried because they have to get to the next plot point, leaving little time to process the characters’ feelings.
Like most all of Cianfrance’s other films, you’ll likely find yourself in conversation about whose side you take. You can learn a lot about a person by the question, but you won’t learn anything about the film. Cianrance’s greatest strength as a director is the deep understanding he brings to his characters’ emotional choices. No one is painted as a villain in this film, but you never lose perspective on how their choices hurt everyone else around them.
This is the fourth of Cianfrance’s feature films, and the first to be adapted from a novel. In an interview, Cianfrance talked about an experience he had with the novel while riding a subway car below the streets of Brooklyn. It was on this ride home that he finished The Light Between Oceans, and upon completing it, he began to openly weep in that public setting. He admits to having been embarrassed at first, but then he realized that if anyone else had been feeling what he was feeling while reading, they’d be crying also.
This little anecdote is very telling to the type of filmmaker Cianfrance is. His films are profoundly intimate portraits of people; they preach tolerance through shared suffering. In a way, he seems more like Eastern directors as opposed to his Western counterparts. The Light Between Oceans is another solid film under his belt, even if it doesn’t reach the heights of his best.| Cait Lore