Courtesy DreamWorks

The Movie Madness of ‘The Light Between Oceans’ Literally Froths at the Mouth

Of mucus and melodrama.

From the hamfisted title to the Victorian-era plot machinations, The Light Between Oceans has rich potential to be the kind of insane project that might possibly turn into something great. Consider the elements: Derek Cianfrance, the passionate indie filmmaker who helmed the frowning Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, adapts a 2012 novel by Australian writer M.L. Stedman. The story’s twists and turns might make a romance novelist hesitate, but Cianfrance embraces them like the bold swain on a paperback cover. He casts two exceptional actors and strands them together at a remote New Zealand lighthouse during the shoot, encouraging improvisation and identification with their roles (sure enough, the actors began a relationship that continues to this day). The whole endeavor is neither commercial nor hip. Surely something intriguing must come out of this stew?

Well, screen madness is never entirely boring, but The Light Between Oceans never truly finds its voice. Except for some remarkable shots of landscape and sea and the dedicated central performances, this film breaks apart on the rocks of its own nuttiness. Michael Fassbender stars as Tom, a rattled World War I veteran who longs for isolation. That’s how he comes to accept the job as lighthouse-keeper at an otherwise uninhabited island off the Australian coast. Before he ships out, he spots a young woman in the mainland port, Isabel (Alicia Vikander). When we first see her, she’s feeding the birds, an early indicator of her need to nurture things; soon enough, she’s melted shy Tom and is sharing his lighthouse duties as his bride. Their idyll is troubled only by their childlessness.

Like a note stuffed in a bottle by Nicholas Sparks, a dinghy drifts onto shore one day, carrying something that will irrevocably change the lives of the people onscreen. I have no problem going along with melodramatic contrivance, and this particular whopper works for a while because of Alicia Vikander’s utter commitment to the role. When we first meet Isabel, Vikander has her swoop and slide through the emotional register, seemingly without filters. Vikander’s reaction when she realizes that her body has betrayed her a second time is an astonishing piece of acting. After the arrival of the dinghy, Isabel begins to resemble something that’s been kept in a hothouse too long; her emotional immediacy now focuses with feral intensity on the idea of motherhood. It’s a strong turn—it outstrips Vikander’s Oscar-winning role in The Danish Girl—and Fassbender is a wise partner to lie back and let his co-star go after it.

Along with these “it” actors, Cianfrance casts iconic Australians Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown in small roles. The film also features the admirable Rachel Weisz as a mainlander whose destiny is connected to the lighthouse couple. Her character’s contrast to the childlike Isabel is welcome, too. But at a certain point the movie is grounded by its director’s grave approach. Cianfrance measures authenticity in the number of millimeters between his camera and his actors’ faces: the fewer, the realer. The actors spill enough mucus during the big emotional scenes to make you question whether people in 1920 had access to handkerchiefs.

Cianfrance has cited John Cassavetes as one of his directing heroes, and he’s into a similarly intense exploration of human emotional life, partnered with adventurous actors (you can see some improvising around the edges). That’s a legit approach. But that style might live better in an intimate indie than an old-fashioned melodrama. It’s actually when Cianfrance pulls back, to set his people against the stunning background, that the movie finds real beauty. The wind skidding across the sea, the plainness of the lighthouse interiors—these are more convincingly dramatic than the secrets and lies of the plot. If the rest of the film had been as ambiguously staged as an afternoon picnic between Tom and Isabel (here still in the courtship phase), the two surrounded by end-of-the-world ruggedness, the skies slate-gray—a picnic fit for the gloom of Wuthering Heights—it might have found a way to connect these people more voluptuously to the world around them.

film@seattleweekly.com

More in Film

Image courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
‘2001’ in 2018

As Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece returns to theaters for its 50th anniversary, have moviegoers betrayed its legacy?

Through their partnership with Dandelion Africa, Extend the Day supplied solar lights to 9,000 children in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Extend the Day
‘Into the Light’ Cuts Through the Darkness

A documentary about local non-profit Extend the Day shows what it’s like for over 1.2 billion people throughout the world who lack electricity.

Evan Peters preps for a heist in American Animals. Image courtesy The Orchard
‘American Animals’ and How to Not Get Rich Quick

The heist film delivers on-screen thrills, and illustrates a potential future path for MoviePass.

Movies at Marymoor is just one of many local outdoor film offerings. Photo by Erinn J. Hale
Seattle Outdoor Movie Calendar 2018

Journey from Wakanda to a galaxy far, far away with this year’s summer film slate.

Get lost in the desert with ‘Little Tito and the Aliens.’ Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks: Final Week

From an isolated scientist to an always-connected teen, we highlight the fest’s offerings from June 4–10.

Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson star in SIFF’s Centerpiece film, <em>Sorry</em><em> to Bother </em><em>You</em>. Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks: Week 2

A wide variety of comedies highlight the fest’s offerings from May 29–June 3.

Han-deled Well

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ plays it pretty safe, but still manages to be a fun space adventure.

The Primal Attraction of ‘Beast’

Arresting lead performances give this British psychological thriller an alluringly dangerous sexual energy.

I Am Not a Witch. Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks Week 1

From a PBS star to a hip-hop firebrand, our choices for the must-see films screening at the fest from May 21–28.

Hearts Beat Loud. Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks: Opening Weekend

From Chinese internet stars to a classic Japanese masterpiece, our choices for the must-see films screening at the fest from May 17–20.

Just a couple of normal buddies hanging out in Deadpool 2. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
Alive and Quippin’

Deadpool 2 might not be as sharp as the original, but the barrage of pop culture jokes keeps things fun.

The women that run SIFF: Beth Barrett and Sarah Wilke. Photo by Amy Kowalenko/SIFF
Women Filmmakers Make Big Moves at Seattle International Film Festival

As calls for accountability and inclusions roil Hollywood, SIFF’s power duo leads the nation’s largest film festival into a fairer future.