Hollywood Melodrama Takes the Spotlight In “The Light Between Oceans”

Photo courtesy of ucsdguardian.org| Michael Fassbender stars as Tom Sherbourne and Alicia Vikander as his wife Isabel in DreamWorks Pictures poignant drama THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, written and directed by Derek Cianfrance based on the acclaimed novel by M.L. Stedman.

Photo courtesy of ucsdguardian.org| Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander show their chemistry as Tom Sherbourne and Isabel Graysmark.

Tara Coughlin ’19
Staff Writer

 

Drama, when done well in film, has an almost magical quality of forging sincere empathy between an audience and the films’ characters. If an audience is able to emotionally connect with the characters, then it is possible for the film to create a truly immersive and satisfying experience. The lack of this empathetic quality is what makes Derek Cianfrance’s, “The Light Between the Oceans” (2012), a film ripe with dramatic potential, such a disappointment. Despite first-rate performances and a strong opening, the film’s eventual descent into melodrama and plot contrivances leaves the viewer feeling empty by the final scene.

The film begins in 1918, with Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) signing up to be a lighthouse keeper on a small island off the coast of Western Australia. Having fought for four years in World War I and suffering from PTSD, the stoic Tom welcomes the solitude this job will give him. While visiting neighbors on the mainland, however, Tom meets the beautiful and vivacious Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) who awakens Tom out of his numbed state.

After falling in love and marrying, Tom and Isabel enjoy a few years of wedded bliss before the realization that they are unable to have a child causes Isabel desperate grief. When a small boat washes up on the island one day, Tom and Isabel discover a dead man and a beautiful baby girl inside. Desperate for a child and fearful they willnot be able to adopt the baby, Isabel begs Tom to keep the girl and not tell anyone about the dead man. Tom acquiesces, and the two raise the baby as their own.

All seems well until a few years later when Tom and Isabel discover that the baby girl’s mother, Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), is alive and living on the mainland. Tom and Isabel now face an unimaginable choice; a choice that poses potentially dire consequences for all involved.

Cianfrance is a gifted director, and the cast he assembled here is more than up to the task of performing this script. Having acquired considerable favor for his varied and intense roles over the years, Fassbender’s understated role as the quiet, introverted Tom may surprise some with its apparent ordinariness. From the first scene in the film, however, Tom’s strength and suppressed emotion are apparent. Fassbender does an excellent, nuanced job of showing Tom’s deep reserve of sadness and anxiety, particularly when contrasted against more jovial characters.

Providing an excellent foil to Tom is the radiant Vikander as Isabel. Warm and outgoing, Isabel exudes such a lovely breath of fresh air that Tom even remarks at one point, “You are filled with so much light it frightens me.”

Having gained immense success and recognition in the past few years, Vikander again shows her range and talent. In the film, she effortlessly slips through the stages of young love-interest, to newly wed, to loving mother. She and Fassbender have a wonderfully tender chemistry. Rounding out the cast is Weisz in a smaller, but still important role, as the grieving mother — a role she has played more than once.

With such excellent performances and an emotionally compelling story, it is strange that the final product should feel so forgettable. The film works the most during its first half when Tom and Isabel begin their tentative courtship and happy marriage on the island. Unfortunately, after the baby is discovered, the film falls into more conventional Hollywood trappings as the main characters begin making decisions that prove less reasonable and more frustrating.

With such excellent performances and an emotionally compelling story, it is strange that the final product should feel so forgettable. The film works the most during its first half when Tom and Isabel begin their tentative courtship and happy marriage on the island. Unfortunately, after the baby is discovered, the film falls into more conventional Hollywood trappings as the main characters begin making decisions that prove less reasonable and more frustrating.

Had the film continued with its focus on Tom’s PTSD and his marriage with Isabel, the film might have been an extremely investing and moving romance. However, whatever emotional sincerity is found in the first half of the film is lost in the hollow melodrama of the second half. The characters may cry more, but the film becomes less and less engaging. “The Light Between the Oceans” is still commendable for its performances. This is a well-made film, but not a terribly investing one. An emotionally involving and realistic drama is hard to do well, especially when the light between melodramatics can prove dim.

Leave a Comment