There’s a world of weeping on display in “The Light Between Oceans.”
The good news is that most of the sobbing is done by Alicia Vikander. If you have to stare for two hours at a tear-stained face, it might as well be that of this Oscar-winning actress. She makes suffering almost transcendent.
The not-so-good news is that in making its transition from best-seller to big screen, M.L. Stedman’s story has lost a good deal of its power.
For all the lacerating emotions displayed by Vikander and co-stars Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz, relatively little of it is experienced by the viewer.
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What was deeply moving on the printed page seems mechanically melodramatic when dramatized in Derek Cianfrance’s film. You want to be moved but can’t shake the feeling that mostly you’re being manipulated.
After four years in the trenches of World War I, Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) returns to his native Australia a hollow man. Seeking solitude and time to rediscover himself, he signs up as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Island, a windswept hunk of rock 100 miles from the nearest coast.
But he won’t be alone for long. In one of the most satisfying passages, he meets, woos and weds Isabel (Vikander), a local girl on the mainland who seems to relish life on the island. (The two stars became a real-life couple during filming.)
Theirs is a civilization of two. The only thing that could make it better would be a baby to share the experience.
Fate has other plans. Isabel suffers a miscarriage (during a hurricane, no less) and later gives birth to a stillborn child. Things are looking pretty glum.
And then a rowboat floats in on the tide. Inside is a dead man and a baby girl.
Tom intends to report this event to the mainland. But Isabel begs him to wait. The baby is a gift from providence.
So against his better judgment, Tom secretly buries the man and reports that his wife has given birth to a little girl. They call her Lucy.
Several years pass and all is paradise on Janus Island.
But on a rare trip to the mainland, Tom spots Hannah (Weisz) mourning in the churchyard. She’s at a grave memorializing her dead husband and daughter, both lost at sea at the same time Lucy’s rowboat washed ashore.
Tom tries to keep a lid on his dark secret. Yet he’s a man of conscience, and it’s killing him. Lucy has a biological mother, and to let her go on mourning is inhuman. But, then, so is snatching young Lucy out of Isabel’s arms.
The ethical dilemma is real and immediate. The acting is convincing. The setting is both stark and beautiful (cinematographer Adam Arkapaw does things with tides and seascapes I’ve never seen before).
In fact, there’s nothing particularly wrong with “The Light Between Oceans.” Nothing except that this viewer felt he was watching the story unfold from afar rather than truly experiencing it.
Writer/director Cianfrance has had a couple of modest hits at the “arty” end of the film spectrum with “Blue Valentine” and “A Place Beyond the Pines” (both starring Ryan Gosling). Here he’s working with a mainstream property and a much broader palette, and his usual intensity is missing.
Perhaps we should chalk this one up to the inherent limitations of film when compared to literature. Fine writing can finesse clunky plotting; transferred to the much more literal world of film, that clunkiness moves front and center.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s film coverage at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘The Light Between Oceans’
Rated PG-13. Time: 2:12.
The perfect settings
Like “The Lord of the Rings” movies before it, “The Light Between Oceans” might inspire vacationers to head Down Under seeking jaw-dropping landscapes. Here’s where “Light” was filmed:
▪ After visiting more than 300 lighthouses across Australia and New Zealand, filmmakers found Cape Campbell Lighthouse on a peninsula at the northeastern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. This stand-in for the fictional Janus Rock lighthouse has guided ships around its reefs since 1870.
▪ The city of Dunedin, population 125,000, on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, transformed into the fictional town of Partaguese, thanks to the addition of vintage signs, horse-drawn wagons and period automobiles. (Filmmakers avoided the seven-story, 2,000-passenger cruise ship docked down the street.)
▪ Some Partaguese exteriors, such as Main Street and the wharf, were filmed 1,500 miles to the east in the Australian town of Stanley, population 460, on the northwest coast of the island of Tasmania.
▪ A scene toward the end was filmed at a cottage in St. Bathans, an old gold mining settlement inland from Dunedin.
Sharon Hoffmann, firstname.lastname@example.org