There aren’t many actors – perhaps none at all – who personify the words “wrestling with his conscience” quite like Michael Fassbender. From sex addict and Shakespeare guilt to bitter, superpower-enabled widower, the man sure seems like a solemn fellow to have around the dinner table.
The Mighty Fass is put through another emotional bender in the third consecutive knockout drama from the rather excellent Derek Cianfrance, director of two of Ryan Gosling’s finest films (Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines). At the tender age of 42, Cianfrance may even have a lost debut feature up his sleeves.
The Light Between Oceans adapts a best-selling literary novel of the same name, by Australian author M.L. Stedman. The story is about a WWI veteran who returns from combat and takes up sole residence as a lighthouse keeper on a tiny island off the coast of Western Australia.
Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) is alone with his war-torn memories and his light out to sea, at least for a little while. The rueful-but-still-a-catch Sherbourne shacks up with a local from the nearest town, Isabel (Alicia Vikander) and shares his remote digs with her. The couple plan to extend the population of the island by one. Isabel falls pregnant, but has a miscarriage.
When we learn this has occurred, the scene, like several in this film, is an emotionally charged moment that works on multiple levels: outside, crying out to Tom, Isabel’s voice cannot be heard against the raging winds. It is also, structurally and tonally, a disciplined piece of filmmaking that casts a long and dark shadow over the drama.
It is a consummately drawn film, like reliving a memory defined by gentle, but profound sorrow.
When a stray rowboat unexpectedly bobs up against the coast of the island, it carries with it a moral dilemma for the couple. Cianfrance’s creeping pace arrives at narrative turning points gradually – like a patient, melodic piece of music. So story revelations (even those, like this, fundamental to the premise) are best left for viewers to experience. Suffice to say, one moral dilemma sprouts another, and perhaps another still – a rolling, tumbling quandary that forms the film’s complex emotional core.
Because the setting is Australia, mate, or something bloody close to it, a triumvirate of local names pop out of the woodwork in small but memorable roles. Garry McDonald emerges with a curly moustache that just beckons to be twirled in a wicked manner; alas, he plays a noble schoolteacher.
Bryan Brown channels tough-but-tender dignity as a father searching for justice for his daughter. And Jack Thompson – good to see ya bloke, as always – demonstrates that his name and likeness can be synonyms for “beanies”, “beard” and “seafaring.” Such things suit the Thompson oeuvre like a stubbie in the hand.
Crack Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, who shot Animal Kingdom, Top of the Lake and True Detective, continues a great run, bathing the frame in whitish-yellow light. Characters often walk against a scaffold-like sky or converse in front of windows. At times the film’s colour grading approaches something reasonably close to sepia, but with a silvery, milky polish.
It’s as if a soft nostalgia is being offset with the luster of a more dramatic, immediate here-and-now: like the look of the film is caught between time zones. The genius of that becomes apparent eventually. Cianfrance played with time terrifically in Blue Valentine (nonlinear) and The Place Beyond the Pines (triptych) and here the work continues, albeit in a more fluid, clear-cut style.
Alicia Vikander cuts a lovely, heartbreaking presence; likewise for Rachel Weisz in a crucial supporting role. So too, in his own way – i.e. wrestling with his conscience – does the Mighty Fass. Under Cianfrance’s expert guidance, the look and performance style of The Light Between Oceans taps into a profound space occupied by its screenplay (adapted by the director) where beautiful things can be sad, and sad things have beauty.
Doing what we perceive to be the right thing, the filmmaker appears to be saying, can carry a noble kind of terror, capable of rocking our most treasured relationships to the core. There is a deep and penetrating gracefulness in The Light Between Oceans. It is a consummately drawn film, like reliving a memory defined by gentle, but profound sorrow.