‘The Light Between Oceans’ (2016) | Movie Review

Recently, I compiled my list of the ten best films of the decade so far, which will be posted soon on Reel Projection soon. As a spoiler for the list, one of the films that made it was Derek Cianfrance‘s Blue Valentine. Rarely can a film capture that kind of raw emotionality between people. His followup, The Place Beyond the Pines, tapped into that rawness once again (even if it got bogged down in structural issues). That touch is something I was greatly looking forward to with The Light Between Oceans, especially with a knockout cast that could deliver those types of performances. Unfortunately, Cianfrance’s signature is nowhere to be found, opting instead for a Lifetime caliber drama perpetually shot at magic hour. Complex characters are turned into cardboard cutouts with overworked tear ducts.

After a tour in France during World War I, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes a job as a lighthouse keeper alone on an island off the coast of Australia. He falls for a young woman in the coastal town named Isabel (Alicia Vikander), and the two marry and live out on the island. Desperate to start a family, she suffers two devastating miscarriages. However, one day a dingy floats to shore, inside of which is the corpse of a man and an alive baby girl. Isabel and a reluctant Tom decide to not report the boat and opt to raise the child as their own. Years later, they learn about the girl’s actual mother (Rachel Weisz), stirring up an ethical dilemma within Tom.

This film constantly hints at something good without ever reaching it. At the start of this film, Tom is a quiet man shaken by his experience on the Western front. He’s in need of order, quiet, isolation, and purpose. After about three minutes, that angle is totally washed away, never to be seen again. Tom and Isabel’s courtship is rushed and surface level, but their first night in the marital bed is the closest thing to that Cianfrance rawness I love so much. The two miscarriage scenes are properly upsetting, yet their lasting impact on the characters is minimal at best. The ethical question of “Who’s child is this really?” is never a particularly interesting one, as it only really asks you to pity Rachel Weisz’s Hannah but never lose sight that Isabel is the true mother here. Tom’s guilt plays as a plot device rather than a true character struggle.


Fassbender, Vikander, and Weisz, three of our finest working actors, are asked to do little more than cry. Sure, crying can be a powerful dramatic tool, but when your characters have been hysterically crying for the last hour, the impact can’t be felt. Numbness and apathy set in. Drama requires a vast array of levels to be compelling. Sadness manifests itself in many different ways, but Cianfrance isn’t interested in exploring any of them. That is a real shame considering the golden trifecta of performers he’s assembled here. What they are asked to play is more soap opera than anything else.

It does not help that almost every scene of the movie is shot at magic hour. Look, we all enjoy a good sunrise or sunset (especially Tevye). The reds and oranges are soft and lush, and it is nearly impossible to make an image not pretty shooting during that time. Magic hour should be reserved for accentuating an emotional beat. If it’s overdone, you can cross the line from melodrama into unknowing parody. Cianfrance’s eye previous to this was pure naturalism, which seems to be at odds with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. Arkapaw can bring a distinct, striking look to a film, like last year’s adaptation of Macbeth (also starring Fassbender), and perhaps Cianfrance did not know how to reconcile his own and Arkapaw’s visions together. Cianfrance’s version of stylization may just be magic hour since its not something he’s really worked with before.

The Light Between Oceans was my sixth most anticipated film of 2016, so it brings me no pleasure to tell you this is a disappointment. It’s not an outright terrible film. Everything about it is perfectly serviceable, making for a movie you’ll forget roughly two days after seeing it. This team could have made something truly heart-wrenching and honest even with this material, but they went for a softball soap opera, leaving you frustrated more than anything else. Even the nonstop succession of pretty magic hour shots couldn’t move me.

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1 Comment

  1. I’m so jealous that you’ve seen this one already, it isn’t out yet where I live but I’ll be checking it out as soon as it is. It’s such a gripping, intense, yet also beautiful story. I read the book a while back and the trailer has the perfect vibe. Looks like it’ll be true to the book, which is something I always appreciate. Not to mention that fantastic cast. I’m sorry to hear that it was quite a disappointment, I had (and still have) high hopes for it. Can’t wait to make up my own mind about it. Great review though. Would you be interested in sharing your work on Moviepilot/Creators? Feel free to shoot me an e-mail so I can expand on that. My contact details are on my blog.

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