Director Derek Cianfrance
Starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Bryan Brown
Released 1st November 2016
Tissues at the ready. Here comes a sweeping romantic epic, not exactly what you’d expect from the director behind Blue Valentine (2010) and The Place Beyond The Pines (2012). Instead of his usual contemporary setting, Derek Cianfrance has moved to the period immediately after World War I by adapting M L Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans. And there’s no sign of his favourite leading man, Ryan Gosling, either.
De-mobbed soldier Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is in need of solitude after the traumas of the war, so takes a job as a lighthouse keeper off the coast of Western Australia. On the mainland, he meets the vivacious Isobel Graymark (Alicia Vikander), they fall in love and marry. But their efforts to have children are heartbreaking until, after her second miscarriage, what seems to be a miracle happens. A boat lands on their isolated island, carrying a dead man and a baby girl. The child is alive and the couple decide to keep her for their own. But it’s a decision which changes their lives forever – and that of the little girl.
It’s a solid story, full of the emotion that goes with the post-war period and the couple’s own situation, so a transition to the big screen looked like a natural. Yet the end result is a disappointment, something of a surprise when you consider the talent on the screen. So what happened?
The answer is a combination of two problems. As director and writer, Cianfrance appears to have become too close to the project and, despite what he said at the film’s London press conference about having had enough of the story by the time the shoot arrived, he seems unable to let go. He’s bogged down by detail, making everything as obvious as possible, over-explaining and over-thinking every scene and situation. He won’t use one scene when ten will do and there are sequences which could be cut in half without losing anything. All of which makes for an over-long film and a decidedly irritated audience, who feel they’re being patronised by a director who doesn’t think they have much in the way of intelligence.
Despite the star-studded cast, the performances vary considerably. Fassbender delivers as the quiet lighthouse keeper, haunted by his wartime experiences but burying them deep. He’s a man of duty, won’t break the rules but his wife means the world to him: he’ll do anything for her and it leads him to make the worst decision of his life. As his wife, Vikander is more of a problem, because we’ve seen it all before. Her emotional, snotty tears in The Danish Girl were utterly convincing but here she’s just giving us the same again. Trouble is, it’s not as good.
Although the film sounds like a two-hander, there is a third character and it’s that performance that really steals it. Rachel Weisz plays the little girl’s real mother, struggling to come to terms with losing both husband and child and finding it even harder to adjust to her baby still being alive. The prospect of her child being returned is nearly as bad as having lost her: they’re strangers to each other and she’s faced with a judgement of Solomon dilemma. Wiesz is powerful on screen – there’s the sense that she could fall apart at any moment, yet she always manages to hold it together – but, once again, we don’t need all those flashbacks to her life with her late husband.
The landscape is a gift to cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, with its seascapes, sunsets and the constant wind on the remote island. But he has trouble with that sun, as there are no end of sun flares off the camera lens. It makes the photography look lazy and amateurish and he’s doing himself a disservice.
What should be a powerful, emotional drama – a story about forgiveness, redemption and different types of love – is undermined by Cianfrance’s approach. The dramatic potential just seeps away and you wish he’d just get on with it. And quickly.
The Light Between Oceans is released in cinemas on Tuesday, 1 November and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 3 November.