Light Between Oceans Shines but with Subdued Illumination

Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Touchstone Pictures, 133 minutes, PG-13 (brief nudity)

The Light Between Oceans is based on M. L. Stedman’s 2012 debut novel, a much beloved book about a lighthouse keeper at what could be considered the ends of the earth: a vest-pocket outcrop where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet. The good news is that the movie is probably as good an adaptation of the novel that could be made. The bad news is that it’s still not a patch on the book.

First, more good news. The acting is superb and the film’s exteriors—shot in New Zealand, Tasmania, and Australia—are gorgeous to behold. The script, which is faithful to Steadman’s novel, casts Michael Fassbender as lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne. The year is 1921—just after the World War I armistice and a time in which grisly reminders of the conflict are highly visible: ex-soldiers lacking limbs, those with suppurating wounds, and men hideously deformed from gas attacks. What can’t be seen are those suffering from psychological wounds—the kind we’d today label PTSD but were then simply called “shell shock.” The latter was so poorly understood that when Tom applies for the lighthouse job, both officials and locals from the West Australian port from which he will sail think he’s simply a man of few words. In truth, Tom is a tormented soul who has seen more death than any man should, and is happy to remove himself from society to see if hard work and isolation can heal his soul. Where better to do that than Janus Rock Lighthouse, a place so remote it’s only provisioned every six months.

Tom’s self-imposed exile might have worked were it not for occasional mainland shore leave, where he catches the eye of Isabel Graymark (Alicia Vikander). She shares Tom’s desires to live life on the margins, though in most other ways she is buttoned-up Tom’s opposite: vivacious, impulsive, talkative, and defiant of social conventions. Against his better judgment, Tom marries Isabel and takes her to Janus Rock, which she takes to like a seal in a fish-filled cove. Their idyllic world is marred by just one thing: Isabel’s miscarriages. Tom stoically and lovingly helps Isabel through the one thing that he most wants to avoid-—more death—but Isabel desperately wants a child. Then, one day after Isabel’s most recent miscarriage, a dinghy washes up containing a dead man and a living baby girl.

From here, the story veers from inner struggles to external questions of duty, situational ethics, and how one chooses whose pain matters most. In essence, does Tom report the wreck, per the charge of his commission, or should he and Isabel raise “Lucy” (as they infant is dubbed) as their own?

This film had just moderate box office success, returning $24 million on a $20 million outlay. Again, it’s beautifully filmed and the acting is superb. In addition to strong performances from Fassbender and Vikander, we are also treated to fine turns from Rachel Weisz, Thomas Ungar, and Emily Potts. It was a special treat to see Bryan Brown on the screen once again, an actor most of us haven’t seen since either The Thorn Birds (1983) or Gorillas in the Mist (1988).

As noted, this is probably the best film one could make from Ms. Stedman’s novel. This, however, raises the question of whether there should have been a filmed version in the first place. It’s always a daunting challenge to make movies about quiet characters. Stedman’s novel conveyed what is difficult to show in moving images: thoughts, turmoil, and moral dilemmas that are internalized rather than expressed. Fassbender’s plasticity gets us part of the way, but not even he can bring it all the way home. Director Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) ultimately relies upon cinematic mood-enhancing tricks such as color-soaked sunsets, gray cemeteries, howling winds, light shining across the water, and other such ilk that skirt the border between expressiveness and cliché. He also had to pare a 416-page novel, an act requiring elision. Even then the film clocks in at 2:13 and it seems longer given its need to show Tom as an emotionally closed man wrestling with sorrow and conflicting duties.

The bottom line is that this is a good film, but not a great one. Those who’ve not read the novel have an advantage on those of us who have: they won’t know what they’re missing.

Rob Weir


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