A film review by Craig J. Koban September 10, 2016


2016, PG-13, 133 mins.


Michael Fassbender as Tom Sherbourne  /  Alicia Vikander as Isabel Sherbourne  /  Rachel Weisz as Hannah Roennfeldt

Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, based on the novel by M.L. Stedman

Derek Cianfrance’s THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS – adapted from the 2012 romantic period novel of the same name by M.L. Stedman – has been somewhat advertised with a Nicholas Sparksian sensibility, which is ultimately a huge disservice to the film’s narrative complexity and compelling thematic material.  

At the very heart of this film lurks a few simple, by far reaching questions.  What constitutes real parenthood?  What constitutes kidnapping?  Are people truly deplorable criminals when they break the law, but only do so to ensure an infant’s well being?  Ultimately, THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS deals with far more weighty issues than other typical genre fare in how it probes the very essence of right and wrong and how adults make dire mistakes in the past and then are confronted with dealing with the consequences of them in the present. 

Under a lesser director’s hands, this film could have devolved into cheaply manipulative melodrama, but Cianfrance is far too thoughtful and soulful of a filmmaker to allow for that.  He previously made one of the most chillingly authentic portraits of a doomed marriage that I’ve ever seen in BLUE VALENTINE and followed that up with his even more impressive THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, a sprawling saga of struggling multigenerational families that I proudly proclaimed as the very best film by a country mile of 2013.  Part of Cianfrance’s unique gifts as a filmmaker is his innate ability to tap into all of his respective actors and bring out performances that have a remarkable emotional truthfulness.  You feel less like a passive viewer watching his films and more like a fly-on-the-wall voyeur witnessing their events.  THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS may be his most straightforward film on his resume, but Cianfrance rises well above romantic drama clichés with his intently focused and meditative approach to the material.  This is a very patient and observant film that takes time to develop its doomed characters, which makes their traumatizing struggles all the more resonant.   



The film opens by introducing us to the lonely and haunted Tom (Michael Fassbender), a recent World War I veteran that’s trying to make a new life for himself in order forget the horrors of combat.  He decides to take a temporary job as a lighthouse keeper in a small and remote costal town, which affords him ample solitude and peace of mind.  When he locks eyes with Isabel (Alicia Vikander), he soon becomes smitten with her and the pair strike up a pen pal relationship, corresponding their ever growing fondness for each other via letters while Tom works all alone for months on end at his post.  The two eventually become inseparable and decide to tie the knot, which allows for Tom to finally have some company and a loving confidant with him on the lighthouse island where he’s stationed.  All in all, married life seems to be the best prescribed medicine for Tom in terms of making him all but forget the ravages of war and his hellish experiences in the trenches. 

Unfortunately, the newlyweds soon realize that they’re both forced to fight a new mental war that tears away at them.  Isabel desperately yearns to be a mother, but she tragically miscarries not once, but twice (in two of the film’s most gut wrenchingly sad scenes), leaving Tom feeling unsure as to how to deal with her deteriorating mental state.  Fate does step in when a boat floats ashore on their island, carrying one dead man and a very alive baby girl.  Isabel quickly latches on to the infant, which causes Tom some initial and obvious concern.  Isabel theorizes – in her mind – that no one beyond her and Tom witnessed the boat or its passengers, and since many at the mainland were under the impression that she was with child, she pleads with Tom to commit the unthinkable: secretly bury the body, keep the baby and raise it as their own. 

Tom will have nothing of it, rightfully pleading with his grieving spouse that doing so would, yes, constitute a crime.  He becomes torn by his job obligations to report unusual activity and his loyalty to his wife and need to tend to her unstable emotional state.  Begrudgingly, Tom acquiesces to Isabel’s pleas and they keep the baby and dispatch of the body.  Years pass and Tom and Isabel learn the pleasures of parenthood like any other “normal” parent, but a chance encounter with a grieving widow at a cemetery changes everything.  She’s Hannah (Rachel Weisz, very good in a very tricky role) that reveals to Tom that she lost a husband and baby at sea years ago.  Tom quickly puts two and two together and becomes riddled with nauseating guilt.  He begs Isabel to do the right thing and finally confess their sins.  She doesn't make it easy for him. 

Part of the brilliance of Cianfrance’s approach to this material is in how he takes his time in introducing us to Tom and Isabel by defining who they are and how they grow to fall for one another.  It’s moving to see a former shell-shocked soldier find inner peace with a woman that provides, initially at least, some form of relief from his torment.  When the pair becomes victims of personal tragedy you really feel the implications of how shattered they are as a result.  When they decide to commit what could easily and aptly be described as kidnapping later on Cianfrance allows for us to understand their psychological motivations without simplistically justifying them.  THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is not trying to paint the couple as heartless villains here, but rather as deeply flawed and conflicted souls that mistakenly believe that abducting the baby and claiming her as their own will somehow fulfill their shared dreams of parenthood and family…even if that dream is built upon an unpardonable lie. 

Cianfrance understands the dramatic power of personal anguish in all of his films, and THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is almost unbearable to endure at times (Isabel’s aforementioned miscarriages are played out with an eerily shocking veracity).  Part of this anguish lies with the inherent dramatic irony of Tom and Isabel meeting Hannah during one public event, which leaves Tom in a state of anxiety plagued panic: If he tells Hannah the truth, his family and marriage will be over, but if he doesn’t confess his multiple sins then his soul will be polluted forever.  Cianfrance makes us feel the incalculable toll that Tom’s and Isabel’s decision have on them from scene to scene.  Isabel’s heart seems to grow more cold-heartedly darker as the film progresses and as their deception of the public grows.  In her mind, she is the child’s real mother, even when faced with the reality that the biological mother does exist and seems desperate to find her long lost child. 

Compellingly, Hannah isn’t portrayed as an unfit mother, which would be an easy dramatic cop-out to make us side with Isabel.  If anything, she’s a strong reflection of Isabel in the sense that both women have been devastated by losing babies and their shared grief somehow makes them spiritual sisters of sorts in the film.  Cianfrance doesn’t try to go for easy answers and narrative solutions to this film’s fundamentally dicey ethical quandaries.  Tom and Isabel are indeed perceived by their child as her parents…she knows no other reality.  Hannah, if anything, is a complete stranger to her, so how would uprooting the child from the only parental bond she’s ever know be healthy?  Unfortunately, Tom and Isabel are also very guilty criminals that exacerbate their situation by willfully lying to Hannah about the whereabouts of her child.  You feel everyone’s heavy burden in THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS; it’s a film refreshingly free of black and white heroes and villains.  

Fassbender and Vikander (a couple off screen as well) make THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS ring with the authenticity of a documentary at times.  They’re so deeply committed to each other and to their respective performances that there’s rarely a moment that feels false between them.  Vikander is the film’s real standout, having to embody Isabel as both a kind and nurturing figure and one that had to deal with inconceivable grief that manifests itself into some truly poor decision making.  Weisz is also strong in a very tough and challenging role of a suffering woman that only wants what’s right and just…even if that means actually causing harm to her child in taking her away from Tom and Isabel.  If anything, THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS has common threads with BLUE VALENTINE and THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, making all three films feels like a thematically solid trilogy; all of them deal with intimate portraits of self-destructive families that ultimately try to atone for the mistakes of the past.   

Cianfrance also knows how to make exquisite looking pictures; this is one of the most handsomely mounted films of recent memory, as cinematographer Adam Arkapaw captures unbelievably stunning panoramic establishing shots that have a painterly beauty while framing much of the indoor scenes with either natural illumination beaming in or via gas and candle light.  The attention to period specific detail in THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is routinely spot-on.  Considering that alongside the film’s superlative performances and nuanced direction, I only wished that Cianfrance provided a finer ending to his film.  It concludes with a rather long and jarring time jump that leads towards an epilogue that never seems as powerfully rendered as it wants to be.  Although hauntingly melancholic, the film’s ending is disappointingly strained.  It also leaves one asking a few too many logical questions about what transpired between certain characters for decades unseen in the story. 

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is clearly Cianfrance’s lesser film compared to his two previous outings.  Yet, the film is undeniably gripping and moving for the conflicts it sets up between its inconsolable personas.  It would have been oh-so-easy for THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS to be constructed as a sensationalistic soap opera, but underneath the film’s somewhat contrived premise and convenient plot dynamics lurks an uncommonly powerful romance drama that reaches emotional honesty in ways that very few films do these days. 


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