Tom and Isabel (Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander) are faced with the most difficult of decisions. A conflict between what is right, and what they desire above all else. It’s a struggle which will ultimately ask much of the character’s moral compasses.
World War I left more than a few internal scars on Tom. Though he made it home alive, the battles took their toll on him. He’s looking to find solitude in seclusion, and there’s no better place to do so than on an uninhabited island, host only to a lighthouse and a handful of farm animals. It just so happens that a position as the lighthouse keeper at Janus Rock has recently opened up. Which is less fortunate for the man who held the role previously; he’s now suffering from a breakdown, unable to cope with cabin fever caused by a life cut off from civilisation. It’s a breakdown made all the more believable by the wholly natural and textured feel of the setting, a gloomy-yet-beautiful place, isolated from the coast, battered by wind and rain. The film embraces the harsh beauty of the lighthouse, and so does Tom.
He finds peace there thanks to his new love, local girl Isabel. Together they build a life together in their new home, and hope to build a family. And yet, two brutal miscarriages later, Isabel is in a fragile, desperate state as she battles with her depression. Which is when the ocean washes up a small boat, along with its passengers: a deceased man, and his baby girl. And it’s the couple’s decision to keep baby Lucy that changes the course of their lives, that of the child’s, as well as her mother’s (Rachel Weisz).
As the reality of their choice becomes clear, they are forced to face up to the consequences of their actions, and a divide between Tom and Isobel forms. The film questions who your sympathies lie with more, and yet, at least for me, they lay firmly with one over the other. Though it’s at pains to make it clear where Isabel’s desire to keep a child that isn’t hers comes from, and Vikander conveys her pain brilliantly, her decision is made solely for selfish reasons, and puts her husband in an impossible situation. It’s an interesting conundrum, but one which isn’t quite strong enough to justify the runtime, which isn’t even overly long at two and a quarter hours, but certainly begins to feel on the lengthy side.
It’s in the opening stretch that The Light Between Oceans lands on an emotional level most regularly, not only with the lows (which there are lots of), but also with the highs; from Tom and Isabel’s romance, to their brief moment of pure happiness with Lucy before reality bites. From there on in however, it’s aggressively downbeat. Whilst still on Janus Rock, director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) gives the movie a level of focus, and allows a spotlight on the intelligent performances from both Fassbender and Vikander. It’s when the initially narrow scope begins to widen, we venture further onto the mainland – complete with its non-fleshed out characters and a turn towards melodrama – that things become considerably less interesting. Tom and Isabel are left yearning for their early days at the lighthouse, and so was I.
Rating (out of 5):