Derek Cianfrance’s two most recent films—Blue Valentine (2010) and The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)—have in common ambient steadicam and attentive characterisation. Beset with personal and collective strife, both films pose layered questions made impossible to answer by their relentlessness and moral ambiguity. What I find so jarring about The Light Between Oceans isn’t just its unabashed sentimentality, but its utter reducibility. The bulk of the film can be whittled down to a single question, but one that undermines its own capacity for complexity with flat characters and overreliance on pathos.
If anything, the film’s storyline, based on M.L. Steadman’s novel, offers the potential for character analyses of equal heft to his previous work. World War I veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) has accepted a job as the lightkeeper at Janus Rock, a small island far off the Western Australian coast. He marries the daughter of his employer, Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), who moves to Janus with him. The two live in content isolation until Isabel has two miscarriages, one after the other. When a baby washes up in a rowboat, the childless couple keep the girl and pass her off as their own. Years later, they return to the mainland and discover the identity of the child’s birth mother, Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz). Tom and Isabel struggle between the obligation to confess, and the love for their adoptive child.
In an interview with Slash Film, Cianfrance concedes to wanting “something that had a structure in place so that I could play in there,” unlike the original material of his last two films. M.L. Steadman has also commended the faithfulness of his adaptation. But this inattention to structure, far from facilitating artistic licence, condemns Cianfrance to the arduous task of sustaining audience engagement through mostly static characters, prone to spontaneous weeping. Isabel is giddy and child-obsessed, spending most of the film oscillating between tears of ecstasy and tears of despondency. Tom is her complement: stoic, self-sacrificial and inclined to dispensing tears along a similar emotional spectrum, but with less fervour. While the dichotomised character tropes are strengthened by rare moments of unpredictability, their trajectories are protracted (like the film itself) out of directorial indulgence.
This may have something to do with Cianfrance’s preference for working on projects thematically contemporaneous with his personal experiences. As in his other films, there is, he acknowledges, a proclivity for amplifying personal minutiae into “epic” experiences. There’s something appealing and intimately recognisable in Cianfrance’s drama—perhaps the parallel ways in which we tend to hyperbolise our personal narratives—but the only way Cianfrance ascribes profundity to the mundane is through cliché. The scenes on Janus Rock heavily feature either Tom or Isabel staring out at the ocean, incessant reminders that they are burdened with so much contemplation. Where the heartbreak of Blue Valentine and even The Place Beyond the Pines is doled out with reasonable regularity, The Light Between Oceans is mired in its own feelings.
Cianfrance isn’t oblivious here: he admits to using emotional excess as a lens through which to view how the characters make and carry out their decisions. The issue with the analytical impetus behind his overt sentimentality is that it’s still experientially indistinguishable from any other maudlin treatment. While Cianfrance correctly attributes his characters’ bad decisions to too much feeling, rational oversight isn’t exactly a singular phenomenon. People often have feelings, and they often culminate in disaster. Here, Cianfrance seems to assume that the best way to remind the audience of these particular motivations is to encumber us with emotion.
Admittedly, there is redemption in Fassbender and Vikander’s predictably generous performances, their vulnerability as actors supplemented by natural chemistry. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, who shot last year’s Macbeth and the first season of True Detective, compels the landscape to perform on par with the actors, capturing the sun-dappled ocean in the fleeting pinks and violets of daybreak and twilight. If only the rest of the film had the dimensionality of the light.