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'The Light Between Oceans' shines

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Historical romance tugs hard at the heartstrings

Having our heartstrings tugged is one of the reasons that we go to the movies. Finding those moments of emotional connection can be a huge part of the cinematic experience. However, if a film goes to that well too often if it tries too hard to get us to feel it can come off as a little disingenuous and/or manipulative.

'The Light Between Oceans' directed by Derek Cianfrance from his own screenplay as adapted from M. L. Stedman's bestselling 2012 novel of the same name drops its bucket early and often, but for the most part manages to avoid coming off as overly treacly. It's a deeply moving story elevated by its beautiful setting and some phenomenal work from its two stars.

Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender, 'X-Men: Apocalypse') is a World War I veteran who has just returned after over four years fighting at the Western front. Haunted by his time in battle, Tom is seeking a quiet appointment, one where he can spend some time in contemplative solitude.

He is assigned to a lighthouse on the Janus Island outpost located off the western coast of Australia. When he arrives in the coastal town that serves as the jumping off point to reach the isolated island, he meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander, 'Jason Bourne'), the daughter of the local schoolmaster.

It doesn't take long before the two fall for one another, even with Tom's months-long hitches at the lighthouse impeding the courtship. They soon marry and move off to live together at the lighthouse. There, they carve out a happy life, embracing one another and their isolation. Unfortunately, a pair of tragedies involving Isabel's pregnancies leave them hurting, with a hole in their lives that they struggle to fill.

But everything changes when a drifting rowboat appears off the coast of the island. When they get it ashore, they discover two people a dead man and a live infant girl. Tom's impulse is to send a report to the mainland regarding the discovery, but Isabell takes the baby's arrival just days after losing her own child as a sign that this new baby is somehow meant for them. Against his better judgment, Tom accedes to her wishes. They name the girl Lucy and begin to raise her as their own.

Tom's struggles with the moral ramifications of what he has done come to a head while on the mainland for his daughter's baptism. He sees a woman named Hannah (Rachel Weisz, 'The Lobster') mourning in the cemetery; he later learns that her husband and child were lost at sea in a rowboat at the same time as Tom and Isabel's discovery.

Wracked with guilt, Tom must come to a painful decision. Does he break his wife's heart and tell this mourning mother that her child still lives? Or does he continue living a lie with his wife, all the while knowing the agony he is abetting?

'The Light Between Oceans' is something of a rarity for the summer season, even the tail end it's an emotionally-charged and well-constructed film intended for grown-ups. There's a welcome degree of sophistication here, tearkjerker or no.

And make no mistake there will be tears. You're going to feel some feelings.

Perhaps the primary reason that this film doesn't teeter over the edge into something cloying and saccharine is the quality of the performances from the two leads. Fassbender has a knack for creating a stoicism that is also somehow inviting; his taciturn take offers hints galore at the roiling depths beneath. Vikander combines sweetness and strength in a way that never feels forced; there's always a risk of becoming clichd with this sort of part, but Vikander is far too talented to fall into that trap. The two of them together have phenomenal chemistry not surprising considering the two became a real-life couple on the set and elevate one another's games in an impressive way.

Fassbender and Vikander aren't alone in putting forth good work. The cast as a whole is quite good; Weisz is excellent as the mourning widow/mother Hannah. Hers is the hardest journey, yet she renders it with clarity and depth. The rest of the ensemble wears this world with a casual ease, building an intricate and utterly believable world.

This is also a beautifully shot film, one that takes full advantage of the majesty of its setting. The ocean is ever-present; the lapping of waves is never far from the forefront. Though there are occasionally some odd directorial decisions regarding shots and angles and the like, the overall aesthetic remains entrancing.

'The Light Between Oceans' occasionally pushes too hard in its desire to make you feel, but those moments can be forgiven thanks to the general emotional impact. That impact comes courtesy of the cast specifically Fassbender and Vikander and the narrative's desire to illustrate both the decisions we're willing to make in the name of love and the consequences of those decisions. If you're looking to spend a couple of hours getting weepy, this movie is a pretty good option.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:38

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