Derek Cianfrance is attracted to stories about the moral weight that generations transfer between each other. The power of 2012’s The Place Beyond the Pines derives less from any particular one of the film’s procedural plot strands and more from an accumulation of dramatic incidents and their repercussions across a sprawling timeline. It helps, too, that this burgeoning American auteur of no distinct aesthetic or formal discipline has proven to be remarkably attuned to the emotional grain of his actors: Michelle Williams gave arguably her greatest screen performance in Blue Valentine, and opposite her Ryan Gosling gave one of his least obviously affected and method-y ones. The director’s modest talents also happen to be fairly uncommon ones among today’s crop of big-name-attracting indie filmmakers, which would put Cianfrance perhaps only in contention with the great Kenneth Lonnergan when it came to picking the most appropriate director to take on M.L. Stedman’s slow-burn debut novel, The Light Between Oceans.
Cianfrance’s film begins in 1918, with returning WWI vet Tom (Michael Fassbender) settling into a satisfying solitude as a lighthouse keeper. The inhabitants of a nearby Western Australian coastal town are so appreciative of Tom’s diligence and commitment to his post that they periodically invite him to social functions, and it’s at one of these events where Tom meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander), his soon-to-be wife. The pair share a handful of tender, beautifully wrought and observed moments together before a marriage is agreed on; they discuss various traumas from their pasts (she lost two brothers in the war, he had an abusive father), their ambitions for the future, and the logistics of spending life together on a tiny, secluded island.
A Malickian montage speeds us through the early days (and months) of the couple’s marital bliss—and at one point, Cianfrance even recycles a classical music cue from The Tree of Life, using it to also score the scene of a baptism. The sequence includes the conceiving of and preparation for Tom and Isabel’s first child, and concludes, decisively, with a miscarriage—and despite the vague whiff of plagiarizing, it works for the same reason that Malick’s films often do: It isolates not only the more obviously impactful moments in the couple’s life, but also various small, more casually affecting ones.
Derek Cianfrance’s film is a beautifully sustained study in adult themes of emotional crisis.
Cianfrance’s more precise narrative form, as well as his facility with interpersonal drama, finds its most engaging expression in The Light Between Oceans’s midsection, as a separate thread involving the mother, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), of a lost child is introduced. Here the film is purely in Cianfrance’s wheelhouse, spinning potent and complex drama from escalating moral consequence, and in a way that always seems to come from a place of empathy for everyone’s consciences and vices.
Of the three principal actors, Vikander is the clear standout; her Isabel wrestles with harrowing implications surrounding her love for both child and husband, reconciling her own desires and painful losses with those of other people around her. In a role that could’ve easily skewed maudlin or shrill, Vikander connects us to the nuances of Isabel’s emotional experience, sparking that rare combination of a performance that’s both showy in its fervent emotional registers and honestly portrayed down to the smallest of details. Fassbender and Weisz ably fill complex roles in their own right, but the film pivots on the decisions Isabel has to make (when to lie and when not to, when to sacrifice), and Vikander anchors that logic.
The film only falters, and just slightly at that, during a brief epilogue set some 30 years in the future, which serves less as the specific extension of theme that Cianfrance was able to achieve through virtually the same tactic in The Place Beyond the Pines, and instead feels like a dutiful and fairly dull effort to wrap up the film’s narrative. It’s the one time that Cianfrance not only replicates tropes of the standard prestige picture, but that his approach actually feels perfunctory for too closely following that blueprint.
Still, there’s something compelling, even here, in the director’s ambition to stretch stories across decades, examining the ways they change people in even the least consequential of ways. And the preceding two hours of The Light Between Oceans achieve a beautifully sustained study in adult themes of emotional crisis, and the responsibilities parents take on in their roles of caring for children. The film as a whole both fits snugly into and subtly mature this quietly fascinating director’s filmography.