Director Derek Cianfrance has a real knack for capturing gritty realism. His last two films - "The Place Beyond the Pines" and "Blue Valentine" - seemed to center on people who were neither good nor bad, just flawed individuals living out their existence in the grey areas of life. Often these characters would be presented with choices, and Cianfrance would be much more interested in exploring how these individuals would learn to live with the consequences of their actions, rather than judge them in any way, or paint them as heroic or villainous. "Blue Valentine" did this marvelously and was one of the best films of 2010, and while "The Place Beyond the Pines" was much more epic and sprawling, the same framework was in place. So in his latest film, "The Light Between Oceans" (opening today, Sept 2), Cianfrance is still delving into familiar territory, but this time around, the tone he strikes feels way more artificial than any of his previous efforts, and despite some shining performances from his two leads, this lighthouse romance is never quite able to shine through the fog.
Real-life couple Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander (who met and fell in love while filming this movie) star as a husband and wife - you guessed it - who are faced with a major decision. Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) is a war veteran who returns to post-World War I civilization with nothing to really live for, so he accepts an assignment to man a lighthouse off the coast of Australia. It is a lonely job, suitable more for a married man not only to bridle his desolation, but because a wife and children would come in handy given all of his duties and responsibilities of his post. Tom, though, looks forward to the solitude. Much to his surprise, he meets the lovely Isabel (Vikander) and the two fall in love at first sight, and eventually marry. But it soon appears that Isabel is not able to produce children, and this takes a devastating toll on the couple. That is, until miraculously, a row boat washes up to shore one night with a dead man and a live baby in it. Is this a sign from heaven that they should raise this baby girl as their own? Or clearly, should they "do the right thing" and try to return this baby to its rightful parent?
This moral dilemma is the crux of the film, and Vikander especially gives a tremendously powerful performance. Cianfrance is smart to use tight shots of both Vikander and Fassbender's faces throughout much of their interaction, because let's face it (no pun intended), is there a more mesmerizing image than the face of Alicia Vikander? We know the chemistry between the two is real, and they do what they can to raise the story from the mushy manipulation it wallows in throughout its second-half. Fassbender's performance is more restrained and reserved, but equally as moving, but Vikander may be looking at another Oscar nomination - she's that good. Their relationship is rushed on-screen, because this is not a movie about how they fell in love, but it is made believable based on the strength of their performances. It's too bad that their choices as characters are eye-opening at best, and contrived at worst.
By the time Rachel Weisz shows up as the birth-mother, the movie totally embraces its "made-for-TV" schmaltz. Her character may be the first in a Cianfrance film where we are told exactly what we are to think of her, and she is not given enough depth despite Weisz's efforts. The film even flashes forward for us to see Fassbender made up to be an old man, because this is the type of movie that can't end without making one final vigorous tug at the heartstrings.
It's not all bad - Cianfrance is enamored with the isolation and beauty of crashing waves and sunrises - but "The Light Between Oceans" fails to resonate as anything more than melodrama. It does apparently stick close to the source material (it's based on a novel by M.L. Sheridan), but Cianfrance's vision of this doomed couple never quite finds the shore, despite the radiant beacons of Vikander and Fassbender's luminous performances.
Genre: Drama, Romance
Runtime: 2 hours, 12 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery
Based on the novel by M.L. Stedman
Written & Directed by Derek Cianfrance ("The Place Beyond the Pines," "Blue Valentine")
Opens locally on Friday, September 2, 2016 (check for showtimes).
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