Yeah, I may be looking forward to this movie, but I can’t deny that it can go either way as far as a sensible story is concerned. It looks like it’s about this couple, very much in love, tried to have a child of their own, but lost it for whatever reason. Then a baby washes up on shore and decide to take care of it as their own, until its mother shows up, not knowing the baby is really hers, but somehow pieces together that it is and it becomes a moral struggle to let go of the child they adopted back to the mother that gave birth to her. This could easily be a bad film if the characters aren’t well-written.
So let’s talk about the cast playing those characters. Alicia Vikander, for those of you that don’t know, is probably my favorite actress to come out of 2015. She won that Oscar for her supporting role in DANISH GIRL (2015 – my #5 of the year), and she’s just recently been cast as Lara Croft in the future-rebooted TOMB RAIDER. So on board with this chick doing anything. Michael Fassbender. What can you say about this manifestation of pure, concentrated awesome? Young Magneto from the prequel X-Men films, PROMETHEUS (2012), and his critically acclaimed performance in STEVE JOBS (2015), as well as his highly anticipated adaptation of the video game franchise ASSASSIN’S CREED later this year. I’ve never seen him in a romance role before. Should prove to be interesting. Last, but not least, Rachel Weisz. Been a fan of hers since THE MUMMY (1999), loved her in CONSTANTINE (2005), and everything else that she’s been in since, including this year’s THE LOBSTER.
Now for the crew. Directing and writing is Derek Cianfrance. He hasn’t done many feature-length films, but the one’s he’s done have certainly made waves one way or another: THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2012) and BLUE VALENTINE (2010). Continuing his busy and exciting year of composing is Alexandre Desplat, having done both this years’ SECRET LIFE OF PETS and FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, and is slated to compose for ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY later this year. The cinematographer/director of photography is Adam Arkapaw. He’s mostly done short films, but has done films like MCFARLAND, USA (2015), and is slated to work again with Fassbender in ASSASSINS CREED.
I’m going in with wary optimism. I like the core cast, but it could easily be a bad movie too. But here we go. This is my honest opinion of THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS.
Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) has returned from World War I and seeking any job that will allow him peace and quiet. The job he finds is the keeper of a lighthouse on a secluded island. He’s a quiet guy, but a gentleman, which catches the eye of the lovely Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander). The two spend a little time together and while Tom’s at the lighthouse, they write to each other and fall in love. Upon his return, the two get married, live together on the island, and eventually Isabel gets pregnant. Unfortunately, the baby dies before it’s born. Despite the heartache, they try again, and that baby dies as well. But not long after the loss of their unborn child, Tom sees a stray row boat in the distance. Bringing it to shore, they find a male dead body and a baby girl in a basket, alive. Putting off reporting the incident until the next day, Isabel becomes attached to the baby and begs Tom to not report the baby as an orphan, or the found body. Years later, passing the baby off as their own, Tom eventually runs into Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), who lost her German husband out at sea, who took their baby daughter with them. Seeing the grave of her husband, the date aligns with when they found the baby girl, Lucy, which divides Tom and Isabel on what to do with what they know.
My opinion on this is going to be… a little long and complicated. Also, there’s going to be some major spoilers throughout that I don’t think I can filter in different parts of the review so… forewarning.
The first thing I’ll probably mention is that I called it, that Fassbender and Vikander would be great, and they are. They share wonderful chemistry throughout the film and I loved every minute of it. I will probably complain, however, about the pacing of their relationship. I know this is based on a book, and I’m sure the pacing of Tom and Isabel’s relationship is explored much more in depth, but the movie sort of blazes through it. The first time Tom and Isabel meet is through passing. IE: they walk past each other and go “hubba-hubba,” although to be fair, I’d do the same thing if I saw Vikander… except I wouldn’t be as graceful about it as Fassbender. I’d be walking into street lights, mailboxes, and tripping over fire hydrants. HAVE YOU SEEN THIS WOMAN?!?!?! Okay okay, suppressing my crush on Vikander, the next time the two characters meet is literally two minutes later at her house. They have dinner with her family and they go on a picnic in the next scene. They talk, sure, and it’s fine for what it is, but Isabel toward the end of the scene proverbially jumps Tom’s bones with a marriage proposition! Holy shit, woman, the only women I’ve met this desperate to get a ring on their fingers are in padded cells! Cool your jets! But honestly, and I’ll get to it, if this was my only problem with the film, it’d still be an amazing movie, which it is, but… yeah, I’m not done talking and I’m risking jumping guns here.
I like that the two have a kind of long-distance relationship and they write a lot to each other. It’s beautiful backgrounds might be seen as obvious and pandering, but being a sucker for a romance movie, I didn’t mind it so much and I found it romantic. So, I guess I got suckered in. Sue me. I was raised on romantic comedies and have developed a soft-spot for romance films. I never claimed to be a man’s man, folks.
Onward. The reason I give the set-up to their relationship a pass is not entirely dissimilar to the reasons I gave the set-up for THE MARTIAN (2015) a pass because it’s in the beginning of the movie and what they do with the rest of the story it unbelievably enjoyable, entertaining, funny, and emotionally gripping. Here, it’s very similar. How these two characters fall in love is rushed, but their relationship throughout the rest of the movie is very engaging and heart-felt, again, due in no small part to Fassbender and Vikander sharing ridiculously great chemistry. But I’m rambling, they’re great, we know, your unborn children know, moving on. When Tom and Isabel finally get married and start a life on the island together, the movie turns a very heart-breaking turn when Isabel loses her first child before its born. Naturally, she goes into depression, but Tom tries to cheer her up when he fixes the house piano that’s been broken since before he was hired to care for the lighthouse. Isabel used to play the piano and his efforts cheer her up. It’s such a small scene, but I love how sweet and thoughtful it is. In fact, the entire bit is kind of charming. Isabel doesn’t want doctors checking on her. But a boat from the mainland arrives and Isabel thinks that Tom went and called for a doctor anyway and overreacts. Now that I look back on it, it’s even kind of cute and charming her reacting that way and Tom just sort of takes it, knowing how it’ll all play out in the end.
Like I said before, the two characters try again, but her baby is born too early, resulting in another loss of a child. I sat in the movie afraid that this would be a consistent punch in my nads with no satisfying justification, but it doesn’t take long for the real story to take place. Tom sees a small boat driving toward the island both he and Isabel investigate to find a dead man and a basket with a baby inside. It’s Tom’s job to report to the mainland about their findings, but Isabel wants Tom to put it off until the next day, thinking that this baby has had enough of boats for one day. Tom agrees, but the next day is not so smooth. Tom’s on his way to write to the mainland, but Isabel has grown too attached to the baby and manages to convince Tom to let them pass off the baby as their own.
Now I know what a lot of people must be thinking when they get to this part of the movie. “She’s basically kidnapping the baby,” or any detailed variation of “she’s wrong” in some way. Honestly, I can’t blame anyone for thinking it and I’m not sure I disagree. But here’s my leap to Isabel’s defense: I’m not a parent. I have never had a child, so I don’t know what it’s like to be a father, or an almost-father. So being a couple who’s lost not one, but two children that didn’t get a chance to live life… I can’t imagine what kind of pain someone like that can go through, if even you can call it “pain.” To make matters even more complicated, on the day after their second child’s passing (or however long it’s been), a baby literally shows up out of the blue in need of caring, and Isabel takes the responsibility to care for it. Can you blame her? She wants to be a mother. She’s mothering this child. I can see anyone’s judgment going sideways after such trauma that she’s endured. Rational thinking so soon after a tragedy isn’t always in the cards. Look, if someone looked at this story and can’t get into it, it’s too convenient or whatever, yeah, the details may not change your mind. But I think the actions here are… not justified, but understandable. Mind you, I didn’t think this in the moment. I had to really think about this when I left the theatre. This opinion was formulated after a solid two hour debate with myself and I realized that this was the true beauty of the film: it got me thinking about the actions of these characters. It was never a question of whether or not they were right or wrong, but rather do I understand and empathize. This grey area of emotions is what really drew me in to the film and I truly love how it impacted me.
However, and there is a “however” here, for all that raving I just did that I claimed gravitated me into the story, the movie tied an uncomfortable tether around me and yanked me right back out of the story in the same God damned scene that engulfed me in it in the first place. What is this heinous act that ripped me out of this possible controversial mentality? When Tom asks Isabel, “What about the body?” Yeah, remember? That was a thing. Isabel, in easily the most unlikable thing in the movie, seriously, I could forgive the prolonged build-up to finding the baby, I could forgive the rushed beginnings of Tom and Isabel’s relationship, but the one act that Isabel commits that I simply cannot forgive is this: she says, “We’ll give him a proper burial!” Essentially, she’s telling Tom to not report on either the baby, or the body. Here is where I have a problem with the way the story is told. There is no reason for this to be a mutual decision. Fine, keep the baby as your own, but what does this poor soul have to do with your desires to be a mother?! Report the body for the mainland to retrieve and I would swear to everything holy and sacred that the story would progress the exact same way that it ultimately did. The mainland would get the body. Hannah would eventually claim it and ask Tom and Isabel if there was a baby with her husband, to which they would lie and say no. Cianfrance could even have written that she was so grief-stricken that she would accuse Isabel of kidnapping her baby, but no one would believe her because Tom and Isabel are good people and maybe even she would have a hard time believing that her accusations aren’t out of misguided depression. I mean, she basically would have lost both her husband and her daughter. Again, that’s drive anyone to false conclusions. Or maybe that’d be out of character for both Tom and Isabel to be able to lie and not feel guilty, which they later do when they find out about Hannah, but how they get to this point feels out of character for both of them anyway. At least make this out-of-character moment feel a little more logical than the movie makes it out to be. This was the cardinal sin of the film: burying the body instead of reporting it.
I’m not kidding, everything else after that is magnificent. Weisz’s performance is breath-taking. When Tom sends her messages that her baby is alive, and when Isabel discovers the truth, the tension is so thick, an amplified lightsaber would have a hard time cutting through it. As Hannah gets closer and closer to the truth, and when shit does hit the fan as Tom tells the truth about everything and is willing to lie to protect Isabel, it’s incredibly white-knuckled until the very end. I mean, watching a four-year-old Lucy (Florence Clery) being torn away from the only mother she’s ever known and forced to live with a woman that is technically her mother, but doesn’t understand why she’s with her at all, or why she’s calling her Grace… dear God, she tries to run away from Hannah twice! Fucking convince me that this shit doesn’t rip your heart out! Even when Hannah confronts Tom and Isabel directly, she’s not even full of venom when she talks to them, but she is clearly conflicted about what to say, do, or even how to react. There’s so much emotion and complex layers packed into these scenes, it’s hard not to get invested. Isabel claiming to never be able to forgive Tom for his actions, her sudden realization that she can’t let him take the fall for her actions, this shit got real.
But it all amounts to an ending that couldn’t be more beautiful. A couple decades at least go by. Isabel passed away and Tom lives by himself, but then one day, a strange woman arrives at his home. Oh sure, the audience knows who it is. It’s Lucy-Grace as an adult (Caren Pistorius), and she’s got a son of her own, looking to say thank you to Tom for saving her life as an infant and… look, anyone who knows me really well knows I love a good adoption story. It’s my cinematic kryptonite. I know this isn’t technically an adoption story, per se, but it is a story about a young person reuniting with someone that cared for her as a baby, so it’s close enough. I cried. Yup, I wiped away tears leaving that auditorium.
This movie’s brilliance to me comes from how wonderfully this movie built up its premise. Sure, the movie can be predictable at times, but it’s what it does with its upcoming scenes that really makes it a unique experience as far as romance films are concerned. It’s a challenging story, it’s a hard story to tell right, and I think Cianfrance did an unspeakably amazing job… with the exception of that ONE FUCKING MOMENT!!! Gah! But… I’m recommending this. I think everyone should see this film, even if you’re not a fan of the genre. There are some truly touching ideas that will leave you thinking and feeling. I would love to see this movie a second time.
My honest opinion of THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS: a strong 4/5
Alright guys, that’s all for this week in films. Keep an eye out for the next batch and have a great rest of the week! And happy belated Labor Day! Honest Puyda, Out!
- trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjKEXxO2KNE
- WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS
- trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ws74Ie4fMc8
- THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM
- trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7a-hmoh6Jw