Arts movie review

The Light Between Oceans is a journey of romance with many crossroads

The Venice Film Festival submission is a tasteful treat for patient audiences


The Light Between Oceans

Directed by Derek Cianfrance

Starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz

Rated PG-13

Now Playing

Janus. Well-known as the Roman god of two faces, symbolizing choices, transitions, change, beginnings, endings. In Derek Cianfrance’s romance drama, The Light Between Oceans, Janus is also an isolated island lighthouse overlooking two oceans and the setting for an intriguing story of love and loss, a journey worthy of the lighthouse's namesake.

Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is a world-weary veteran who takes a lonely post off the coast of Australia as Janus’s keeper. A young townswoman, Isabel (Alicia Vikander) manages to soften his stoic shell, and they marry to begin a life on the remote rock of an island.

The first act of the film is slow and searing, as it depicts the couple’s struggles to have a child. Isabel’s two miscarriages build up gut-wrenching emotion and pain, thanks to Vikander’s spectacular acting.

In an almost biblical moment, a dinghy washes onto Janus’s shore, a baby’s wails emanating from its cradle-like hull. It seems a moment of deliverance for Tom and Isabel. But, when they peer inside, they realize it’s also a coffin — a man, pale and puffy with death, lies inside.

With the watchful eye of Janus peering down at them, Tom and Alicia reach their first turning point together.

Alicia, in her torment over her recent losses, wants to keep the baby and conceal the body. Tom is torn between his duty to report the incident and his devotion to Alicia. In his greatest moment of weakness, he decides to cover up the episode and adopt the baby, a choice that seems more like a punishment to his moral character.

The first act is truly bittersweet, but it’s dampened by the slow-cooking plot. Tom develops little as a character, with Alicia Vikander pulling most of the emotional weight to keep us invested. The second act, taking place years later, picks up the pace, and the major twists and messages of the movie are revealed grandly.

The cinematography is also gorgeous to the point of heartache. Only near the climax of the film do we see a panoramic shot of Janus Island in its entirety, a sweeping view of the scraggly rock in the midst of endless ocean. Until this point, we’ve been treated to beautiful shots of fragments of the island, almost inviting the audience to construct the rest of the island with our imagination. Just one shot brings into perspective how diminutive the island truly is, stripping away our fantasies, simultaneously shrinking and tearing down the world that the Sherbournes live in — which we discover is a fantasy as well.

Praise must be given to Michael Fassbender; he does his best to portray a man as stolid and awkward as Tom Sherbourne. Veering dangerously close to wooden at times, Fassbender always manages to correct himself and produce something passably genuine at every turn.

Hampered by its length of over two hours, but driven by reliably excellent performances, The Light Between Oceans does just enough with its story to deliver its message, and it is certainly a cinematic treat for patient and refined moviegoers.

The Light Between Oceans will compete for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.