With his third feature under his belt, it’s clear that Derek Cianfrance, whose three directorial credits now include two romantic melodramas, is most interested in how the decisions of parents affect the lives of their children. It’s a powerful, robust theme to explore across different periods both cinematic and personal. Needling his focus down to the details shows a passionate evolution of his desire to say something new about the challenges and complexities of parenting, but his filmmaking skills have become a bit softened in the process.
With his new period drama The Light Between Oceans, he’s traveled far from the grungy realism of Blue Valentine, still his best movie by a celluloid mile, and has opted for a statelier style, with an emphasis on pretty pictures of lush locales. The striking photography, courtesy of the relatively new, already well established Adam Arkapaw, allows Cianfrance to align his vision with the emotional epics of old that put their widescreen panoramas to stunning use.
The Light Between Oceans concentrates on the post-WWI experiences of lighthouse keeper Tom (Michael Fassbender) and his wife Isabel (Alicia Vikander) as they live a solitary existence and struggle to start a family on a small oceans-bordering island off the coast of western Australia, so the sumptuous imagery is essentially a guarantee. The island chosen for the shooting location is a slab of geographic perfection, unbridled natural beauty with a touch of manmade matter, a quaint house and that light-emitting obelisk on the hill.
The beauty isn't necessarily only skin-deep, either, as it's intended to be juxtaposed against the eventually dark and dreary twists in the plot. Still, Cianfrance never quite sells the compelling conflict beyond the well-greased plot mechanics, communicating the emotions without fully capturing them. It's a strange problem considering Cianfrance is working with world-class actors in the lead roles and he's previously proven himself to be a strong director of stars.
Fassbender brings a quiet stoicism to the reserved, emotionally stunted Tom and Vikander imbues the charming, passionate Isabel with gentle grace and a steely sensitivity that sweetly complements Fassbender's statuesque seriousness. The real-life couple have chemistry to spare and they collectively carry the picture as far as the screenplay allows.
That’s the dramatic bottleneck, though. Cianfrance’s script, an adaptation of M. L. Stedman’s bestselling novel, is a soothingly slow introduction to the characters and their solitary world at first and then a sort of heartstring-tugging sprint in the second half when the plot twists start to pile up. Whatever emotional investment is earned by Fassbender and Vikander’s performances isn’t quite enough to really hammer home the more potentially moving narrative elements at work here, but The Light Between Oceans still succeeds on a simpler, less impactful level.
Cianfrance certainly helps make the core relationship a believable one, which in turn makes the main conflict appropriately upsetting and ethically knotted, a major aim of the story. Is the happiness of this couple that we know and care about more important than the happiness of another that we've never met or barely know? Of course, that’s something of a silly question to ask, but it hints at the emotional complexity the movie wishes to explore. Tom and Isabel’s prayers can only be answered at the expense of someone else.
The moral quandary our protagonists face is more intriguing in concept than in execution, with its edges sanded down in the finished version to make way for convenient resolutions and flowing sentimentality. Still, the version we get remains lightly effective with the gorgeous photography to light our way and the lead actors preventing the treacle from soggying the story while they’re joined by some of the most adorable young child acting seen on screen in ages. These positives make The Light Between Oceans a decent tear-jerker even as it aspires to be more.
This is closer in quality to Cianfrance’s flawed and equally sprawling The Place Beyond the Pines, his multi-generational tale of cops and robbers, than it is to Blue Valentine, his emotionally exhausting look at a marriage’s beginning and end. That movie seemed to suggest Cianfrance was a director destined for great things, but two movies later and his efforts have only gotten bigger, not better.
What remains intriguing, though, is the forming of his main focus around parents and their children. The kids of the disintegrating couple in Blue Valentine are a small, though present part of that movie’s story, but The Place Beyond the Pines is essentially all about mapping the path that fathers have set for the sons. The Light Between Oceans, which even shares titular similarities with Pines, sets its sights on Tom and Isabel’s relationship, but ultimately looks to the experiences of a young child they raise as their own. This thematic tissue clearly means a lot to Cianfrance, who is pushing hard to make grandly dramatic statements on the subject of parenting.
The Light Between Oceans is too clunky in its delivery of those statements to make the immense impression that Cianfrance intends, but it’s too technically polished and well-acted to not be enjoyed as weepily old-fashioned cinema. While the story hurries too much in the third act and ties up its knots too simply and neatly as a result, the memories of the far stronger and more immersive preceding acts still linger. Fassbender, Vikander, and a great supporting cast bring the period to life in rich detail, aided by the beauty of their surrounding setting.
It’s hard not to think that Cianfrance can and should be better than this overall, but if he continues to explore this primary theme of parents and children, then perhaps something like The Light Between Oceans will one day be seen as a cinematic example of growing pains, clunky yet necessary. The future must be brighter, though.