Few actors in recent memory have exhibited the versatility of Alicia Vikander, who just last year played a mechanic fashionista double-agent (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), the loyal wife of a transsexual trailblazer (The Danish Girl), and a spellbinding robot with a see-through belly (Ex Machina). The Swedish actor again unveils a new side of her in The Light Between Oceans, in which she plays a woman named Isabel Graysmark who wants so desperately to be a mother that she goes far beyond the reaches of morality.
Vikander, a classically trained ballerina, throws her entire body into the role, drawn like a magnet to her onscreen counterpart, Michael Fassbender, who plays her lover, Tom Sherbourne. A rattled veteran of World War I, Tom elects to lead a life of solitude, taking a position as a lighthouse keeper off the coast of Western Australia, but vivacious mainlander Isabel manages to capture his heart and convince him to marry, making his life on the cliffs a lot less lonely.
Their first few months as man and wife are fairytale splendid (if Fassbender and Vikander aren’t the prettiest onscreen couple this year, I don’t know who is), but they attempt to start a family and miscarry – twice – sending Isabel into a deep depression and Tom into a suffocating state of helplessness. Two wooden crosses in the shadow of the lighthouse mark the graves of their lost children.
Tom and Isabel’s love for each other endures, but they’ve got much love left to give and no one to give it to. Like something out of a twisted folk tale, hope washes ashore in the form of a small boat carrying a wailing but healthy baby girl. What makes it twisted is that she’s accompanied in the boat by an anonymous dead man.
Driven by his sense of duty, Tom hurries to tell his superiors of their discovery. At the last second, Isabel convinces him to go along with a wicked plan: they’ll bury the man, keep the baby (who they’ve named Lucy) for themselves and pass her off as their own as no one on the mainland has any knowledge of their second miscarriage.
They raise Lucy as their own and, on the day of her Christening, Tom hears a weeping woman singing at the foot of a grave in front of the church. The woman is Hannah (Rachel Weisz), and the epitaph on the tombstone says she lost her husband and newborn daughter at sea a few years ago. Tom, reverting to his dutiful nature, writes an anonymous letter to Hannah saying that her daughter is alive and that her husband is at peace. As one would imagine, the proverbial shit hits the fan from there.
The story is adapted from a novel by M.L. Stedman by Derek Cianfrance, who also directs. The tone of his previous efforts, including the piercing Blue Valentine and the layered The Place Beyond the Pines, is retained here, with the surging American director honing in on the complexity of the characters’ behaviors and emotions rather than the larger plot machinations. This is a good thing, as the plot he has to work with is entirely predictable on paper. Weisz’s broken widow reacts as any mother would who discovers her dead child is, in fact, not dead at all, and the three-way struggle between her, the equally desperate Isabel, and self-loathing Tom unfolds naturally.
Cianfrance’s going concern isn’t narrative, but the relationship between atmosphere and emotion. He gives his actors time to fully explore every bit of grief, anger, and guilt they’re faced with, and the imagery he frames them with – stark, craggy rock formations; steep, dimly lit stairs – slips right into whatever mood the actors bring to the fore. It’s an incredibly cohesive movie in that sense.
On the other hand, there seems to be a constant a disconnect between us and the characters, as if their emotions are always an arm’s length away. Vikander, Weisz, and Fassbender are terrific, but there’s an overriding feeling, even by movie’s end, that we never get a tight enough grasp on what their thinking or feeling. Melodrama has its virtues, but in the case of The Light Between Oceans, a bit more emotional specificity may have helped the characters feel more like real people than mythical figures of sadness and regret.
The Light Between Oceans is a visually and thematically cohesive package, though its characters feel emotionally an arm's length away.