The Light Between Oceans is very similar to Derek Cianfrance’s previous films, if just for the fact that the title has very little to do with the actual narrative.
Of course, Cianfrance has an excuse this time around, as The Light Between Oceans is adapted from a novel of the same name by M. L. Stedman. Still, the name bears a striking resemblance to other ambiguously-titled Cianfrance films, such as The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) and Blue Valentine (2010). The similarities don’t stop there, though. Perhaps the reason these titles are so vague is that the study of the relationships within the films often overshadows any sort of narrative gimmick.
The Light Between Oceans begins in 1918 with Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a WWI vet applying for a temporary position as a lighthouse operator in Western Australia. Tom just wants to be alone. He gets the position and time passes very quickly for the audience.
The warped speed at which time moves in this film allows for a lot of ground to be covered in a short period. This increases the pace, allowing the plot to move ever forward, but also creates dynamic characters who are constantly making active choices that give the story drive.
Three months later, Tom is offered the lighthouse keeper position full time. He accepts, and is introduced to a girl named Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander). The two hit it off almost immediately but are separated due to Tom’s line of work. The only way they can be together is if they get married, which Isabel suggests on their first date. They correspond by mail for a little while, before deciding to give marriage a go.
Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender met on the set of this film, allegedly fell in love and are currently romantic partners. If that alone isn’t a selling point, I don’t know what is. Even with the brief amount of screentime used to set up their dynamic, their chemistry is apparent and the relationship feels authentic.
And authenticity within the relationship is probably the most important aspect of the film. The camera alternates between shots of gorgeous scenery and intimate close-ups of the actors’ faces. This intimacy is what makes much of the movie so emotionally investing, especially as the characters are largely isolated from the rest of civilization.
Soon after they are married and living on their island, Isabel gets pregnant: a miscarriage. They try again, but their luck is no better. However, shortly after their second tragedy, a boat washes up on shore. Inside, a man, dead, and a baby, alive. The pair then has to decide if they want to report the accident, or keep the baby as their own and the secret to themselves.
This is the moral dilemma that drives the rest of the story (don’t worry, I’ve only spoiled details from the first act), and it’s a strong vehicle to move the rest of the story along. Time keeps moving forward, and the repercussions of their actions take a toll on the characters in small, ever-present ways.
However, as the third act nears, time seems to stop within the narrative. A pivotal choice is made, and the rest of the film is spent with the characters moaning and groaning and feeling sorry for themselves. While still somewhat compelling, the result is a movie that drifts away from its focused origins.
Michael Fassbender is great. So is Alicia Vikander. They both display an overwhelming sense of passion and vulnerability. Large portions of the film feature the two of them staring wistfully, but they both pull it off well enough that your ability to sympathize with their characters is unimpacted.
As a period romance, much of the film’s success depends on the audience identifying with the characters. Had it failed in this regard, The Light Between Oceans would have been a rather dull film, and aside from the passage of time and the active choices, nothing much happens within the movie. Every aspect is focused on its romantic tone, and the location has quite a bit to do with that. Maybe that’s why the title only describes where the movie takes place: The Light Between Oceans.