“Lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) and radiant, spirited Isabel (Alicia Vikander) live together in married bliss on a remote, rugged island off the coast of Australia. But their windswept world is turned upside down when Isabel learns that she’s unable to bear a child. One day, a drifting lifeboat washes ashore with a crying baby in it. The dilemma the couple now face will echo far beyond the island, engulfing and irrevocably impacting their world – and that of a stranger (Rachel Weisz) – in a passionate story about love, hope and a fateful choice.”
Based on M.L. Stedman’s novel of the same name, The Light Between Oceans is a story that questions and challenges morality. The film was directed and adapted for the screen by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) and stars Michael Fassbender (Assassin’s Creed, X-Men: Apocalypse), Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), and Rachel Weisz (The Mummy, Oz the Great and Powerful). The Blu-ray and Digital HD editions run 133 minutes.
The movie begins with Tom (Fassbender). After returning from World War I, he is looking for work that will allow him the solitude to mentally recover from what he has seen and done. He accepts a position as the Janus Lighthouse keeper. His job includes making repairs around the lighthouse and the small house next to it, keeping the lighthouse’s light bright enough for sailors to see, and recording and reporting logs. Before he leaves for his assignment, he meets a young woman named Isabel (Vikander) and is instantly enchanted by her. They write letters to each other until they decide to marry and start a family. The new couple quickly discover that they cannot have a child. After two miscarriages, Isabel is distraught and Tom is desperate to make her happy again. Unsure of what to do, he is shocked when a boat holding a crying baby and a dead man washes up on the shore. Isabel comforts the baby, and Tom prepares to report the incident to the mainland; however, when Isabel begs him not to send the report, he agrees to cover it all up and tell people the baby is their own.
Tom and Isabel name their new daughter Lucy. When they return to the mainland to have Lucy baptized, Tom sees a woman (Weisz, above) crying in the graveyard outside the church. He glances at the tombstone after she leaves and is horrified to realize that she must be Lucy’s real mother and the widow of the man in the boat. Terrified of losing Lucy and breaking Isabel’s heart, he decides not to tell the woman what he knows; however, his guilt leads him to leave an anonymous note letting her know that her baby is alive, safe, and loved.
The rest of the movie follows the consequences of Tom’s decisions. As he and Isabel continue to raise Lucy (portrayed by adorable newcomer Florence Clery), the child’s real mother (below) takes the note to the police and tries desperately to find her daughter. The following journey is full of hope, betrayal, loss, and love.
Probably needless to say, but let’s just get the warning out there: this story is extremely depressing. A real tear-jerker. Of course, this isn’t a surprise given the previews and the movie’s synopsis. Almost every viewer must expect an unfortunate and tragic ending for at least some of the characters’ stories.
The overall story is depressing, but it is told well. It’s ability to challenge and question morality is introduced when the baby reaches the island and continues to be a central idea until the film’s credits. Unlike most stories, there is not a clear hero or villain. Can we blame Tom and Isabel for wanting to be parents? Does their grief and loss justify their decisions and choices? On the other hand, can we blame Lucy’s real mother for so desperately wanting to get her daughter back? Each character’s motives are evident and understandable.
All of the cast members deliver excellent performances that only serve to make their characters all the more sympathetic. Alicia Vikander (above), in particular, gives a standout performance as Isabel Sherbourne. Her character begins the movie full of life and hope, but we see her quickly fall apart after her miscarriages and the realization that she can’t be a mother. It is hard not to be moved by the pain and fear depicted by Vikander both during and after Isabel’s miscarriages. The hope and underlying desperation on his wife’s face when she begs Tom to keep the newfound baby as their own are really what persuade him to agree to her plan. Vikander works well with Fassbender and really excels in this movie!
The pacing of the movie is intentionally slow in the beginning. We see several minutes of Tom making repairs around the lighthouse and writing his log. As the plot develops and the pressure on Tom and Isabel intensifies, the pacing quickens accordingly.
Though the cast is wonderful and the pacing feels appropriate, the story itself begins to suffer in its final act. Though initially depressing, the tragic elements of the story almost become too much. By the time Lucy’s biological mother eventually meets her daughter, the child is at least four. While it is difficult to watch the pain that both mothers feel, watching Lucy’s fear and confusion is uncomfortable and slightly stressful. She is old enough to question why a new person wants to be in her life and why this woman always wants to call her by the wrong name, but she clearly doesn’t understand why the people she believes to be her real parents are so visibly upset.
Additionally, without giving too much away, I did not like the ending of the story. Not all issues are resolved conclusively, and the movie delivers yet another emotional punch in its closing moments. I was not expecting a cheery, feel-good ending, but I was expecting something a little bit better than that. Of course, not all viewers will feel the same way.
The Blu-ray is presented in 1080p HD with an aspect ratio of 2:40.1, and it looks excellent. Every scene is clear, sharp, and focused. The costumes are made in almost exclusively muted tones, featuring lots of whites and browns. This leaves the natural scenery (including wide shots of the expansive oceans, mountain ranges, grassy slopes, and sunrises/sunsets) to provide the bolder and more vibrant colors. Shades of red and pink, in particular, are seen only in a few brief instances. The lighting is also excellent. As explained in one of the film’s special features, Director Derek Cianfrance tried to use natural lighting whenever possible.
Just over half of the movie was shot on location at Cape Campbell Lighthouse in New Zealand. This location was chosen for the idea that it looks like the place where two oceans meet – a reference to both the story’s title and also a line in the original novel. The Cape Campbell Lighthouse was painted with black and white stripes to make it stand out against its mountainous backdrop, but it also makes for some very beautiful shots seen in the movie.
The audio, presented as 7.1 surround-sound, is excellent. Alexandre Desplat provides an instrumental score that is beautiful, yet haunting at times. The movie also makes use of the natural sounds of the winds and oceans surrounding the lighthouse. Many scenes feature no dialogue, leaving viewers to hear the combination of instruments and natural ocean sounds to great effect. With the exception of a few accents slipping in some scenes, this movie features some of the best audio I have heard in a movie.
The Blu-Ray comes with the following three special features:
- 1. Audio Commentary – Director Derek Cianfrance and his film studies professor, Phil Solomon, discuss the film, the shooting process, and the reasons Cianfrance chose to include some scenes in lieu of others.
- 2. “Bringing The Light To Life” (1080p, 16:47) – Cast and crew discuss the unique approach director Derek Cianfrance used to create the movie. His goal was to create an “experience” for all of those working on the film, with the movie itself being almost an afterthought.
- 3. “Lighthouse Keeper” (1080p, 5:40) – The producers and director discuss the importance of “casting” the right island and lighthouse for the film. A brief history of the Cape Campbell Lighthouse in New Zealand is provided.
The Light Between Oceans is a depressing story that the viewer knows cannot end well for the characters; however, the film is beautifully shot, delivers wonderful surround-sound audio, and is carried by outstanding performances from its cast. While it is probably not a film you will want to view multiple times, it may be worth watching at least once – if only for the beautiful sounds and sights surrounding the lighthouse.