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Film Review: The Light Between Oceans (2016)

“You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day, all the time. You have to keep remembering the bad things. It's too much work.”

Based on a 2012 novel, The Light Between Oceans stars Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander as an Australian lighthouse keeper and his wife who decide to keep a baby girl they find drifted ashore in a small boat. Their decision presents a moral dilemma when they discover the identity of the mother (Rachel Weisz) a few years later.

Beautifully shot but sedately paced, The Light Between Oceans slowly reveals its themes of love, motherhood, isolation, forgiveness, and morality. The film tarries in a long introduction for closed-off WWI veteran Tom (Fassbender) who chooses the loneliness of the lighthouse’s island after unspoken trauma in war and childhood. He opens up after falling in love with Isabel (Vikander), a local girl who takes an interest in him naturally and immediately. They marry and she moves to his tiny island, far from civilization, but their bliss is shadowed by two miscarriages. When a newborn baby miraculously makes its way to the young couple via a rowboat that also carries a dead man, Isabel begs Tom not to report the incident but to pass the child off as their own instead. A simple decision made out of love for the little girl and his grieving wife, Tom acquiesces and they name the girl Lucy.

Shortly afterward, Tom discovers the true story of Lucy’s parentage: Helena (Weisz), a woman from the closest town’s richest family, had fallen in love with Frank (Leon Ford), a German man, and gotten married before giving birth to a girl. With anti-German sentiment running high after WWI, Frank had been chased one night onto a rowboat while carrying his daughter and both had gotten lost at sea. When the boat did not reappear, the town assumed both the father and daughter had perished. Desperate to do the right thing despite his and Isabel’s attachment to Lucy, Tom sends an anonymous note to Helena to assure her that her daughter is safe. Tom’s guilt-ridden actions spark a search for Lucy and drive a wedge between him and Isabel. In the aftermath, Helena and Isabel wrestle with difficult moral choices for Lucy’s best interests and reckon with intangible gifts from their respective husbands: Tom’s sacrificial love and Frank’s capacity for forgiveness.

Anchored by a trio of world-class actors, Fassbender and Weisz stand out with their restrained performances while Vikander seems a tiny bit miscast, although still good. With her slim, girlish, ingénue frame, Vikander cannot quite sell the mothering side of her character, which, unfortunately, is the defining aspect of Isabel (to see a far better example of a young, grieving mother, check out the first season of Broadchurch). She’s done better in other films, obviously, but just as I can believe Tom Hiddleston as a prince but not a king, perhaps Vikander belongs in more non-traditional roles than traditional ones.

Different kinds of isolation are presented in The Light Between Oceans, from the physical to the psychological. Firstly, there is the lighthouse island itself, virtually unpopulated and untouched by humans. Tom and Isabel enjoy endless views of sapphire ocean waves and immense blue skies from their home and share only in the company of each other and some small farm animals until Lucy comes along. Tom’s isolation, as brought up early in the film, is exacerbated by his family history (he was brought up by an abusive father) and his experiences in the war (he seems to have lost all his friends to the battlefront). He is withdrawn, having chosen to sequester himself from society (and, to an extent, the audience as well) and reveals little else of his back-story. Conversely, Frank, who hangs over the film as a ghostly memory, is shunned by the townspeople because he is German. The time and setting of the film alludes to a certain, post-war disconnect and melancholy that everyone suffers from: a shared experience that cannot be spoken aloud. Lastly, when Helena tells her father that she is going to marry Frank, she is also cut off from her family, only to tragically lose both her husband and infant shortly afterwards.

Within this loneliness, the film’s message seems to be that the actions we think we do in isolation can turn out to affect others and have terrible, unforeseen consequences. Even the actions we wish we could take back or fix can never be truly undone. The only redemption can be found in love and grace, such as that between husbands and wives and between parents and children.

Ratings (out of 5):

Directing: 3.5

Story: 4

Acting: 4

Dialogue: 3

Editing: 3

Visuals: 4

Music/Score: 4

Overall Average: 3.6

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