Like a warm breeze blowing across the beach on that wistful last day of summer comes The Light Between the Oceans, a romantic, heartwarming tear-jerker set on a rocky island in a gauzy past. Director Derek Cianfrance lushly adapts M.L. Stedman’s eponymous novel with mixed results. It’s sure to satisfy fans of the genre; it’s dreadfully hokey, but painfully sincere.
The plot is fairly simple. After World War I, Tom (Michael Fassbender) takes a job manning a lighthouse on a remote Australia island. He marries a local girl, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), and the two make the island their love nest. Then a small boat washes ashore; in it, an infant. They claim the baby as their own — who’s to know, except maybe the child has a family somewhere …?
Maybe it was the Island Where It Is Always Sunset, or the traumatic event during a torrential rainstorm, but I couldn’t help feeling this was simply a superior grade of a Nicholas Sparks film. It’s got the weepy melodrama, with its obvious twists and turns, and an emotionally damaged hero saved by the love of a vibrant young woman. (Bonus broken thing: a piano.) There is much canoodling by soft light, be it evening’s gloaming or an oil lamp. Love is declared: inked in letters, uttered in heartfelt pleas and etched on grave markers. There are winds that never stop sweeping, seas that never stop pounding and tears that never stop falling.
Fassbender and Vikander are righteous pros who sell the bejesus out of this tale, barreling into this material like they’re living it, delivering giddy highs and sorrowful lows. They give a master class in artful crying, with silent tears rolling down exquisite cheekbones; I really did feel sorry for them.
It’s just about enough to make you forget that the plot is quite contrived, a series of coincidental (and not very likely) events designed to showcase how tragic life can be. It’s a narrative roundelay where love causes sorrow, which can only be combated with more love, which causes more sorrow, and so on.
During the film’s slower times — the overall pace is quite leisurely — I felt transported to a lifestyle catalog, the Vintage Coastal Lighthouse edition. This film is truly lovely to look at — from its gorgeous stars and dramatic ocean vistas to just-so cozy cottages and beachcombing togs. Imagine the rangy Fassbender in a hand-knit turtleneck, breeches tucked into boots, languidly posed against a whitewashed fence. Or Vikander, collecting eggs from free-range hens, while the wind adorably whips her linen tunic around her leggings. Sigh. How can this life be so sad?