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Finding ‘The Light Between Oceans’

Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander star in child-custody melodrama

Aug. 30, 2016
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A lighthouse keeper’s life is not for everyone, but solitude suits Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) just fine. As The Light Between Oceans begins, Tom has just returned to Australia after four years of front-line horror during World War I. His sad eyes reveal that he’s seen too much. A bit of isolation might do his soul some good.

That he won’t remain a solitary man for long is obvious from the way his eyes keep meeting those of the village girl, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), a pre-Raphaelite beauty in flowing peasant dress. While he’s emotionally closed, she’s vivacious and open. Opposites attract and soon enough Isabel becomes the lighthouse keeper’s wife, heading for a new life across the deep channel to a barren rock crowned by Tom’s candy-stripped lighthouse. It looks as if a happy ending has arrived half an hour into the movie; however, an ominous note is struck early on when we learn that Tom’s predecessor has gone mad while tending the light on that isolated rock in the sea.

Based on the novel by M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans takes the turn toward tragedy after Isabel survives two miscarriages. Traumatized and high-strung, her desire for a child seems fulfilled when a cry is heard from the sea. A dingy washes ashore, bearing a dead man and a screaming baby girl. Although Tom harbors grave doubts, Isabel has her way: They keep the child, pretending it’s theirs (and burying the dead man). Of course, that’s not the end of the story. A few happy years go by before Tom discovers that their girl’s birth mother (Rachel Weisz) lives near the town across the channel and remains devastated by loss. He wrestles with doing what he thinks is right, knowing that pain will result from any decision.

Although buoyed by fine acting (even from the supporting cast), The Light Between Oceans drags on too long with a clumsily handled backstory flashback (concerning the girl’s birth family) and a downward spiral toward soap opera melodrama as nature struggles with nurture once the biological mother arrives. The best parts come early with the love between Tom and Isabel and even earlier as the emotionally battened-down lighthouse keeper stands surrounded by wind, waves and sky. The setting and cinematography are impressive, especially when seen on a movie theater’s big screen.

The Light Between Oceans

Michael Fassbender

Alicia Vikander

Directed by Derek Cianfrance

Rated PG-13

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