With "Blue Valentine" and "The Place Beyond the Pines," filmmaker Derek Cianfrance has proved that he has a knack for both intimate romantic fables and sweeping family epics that span decades. In his adaptation of M.L. Stedman's 2012 debut novel "The Light Between Oceans," Cianfrance makes a film that is both epic and intimate, a love story intertwined with tragedy. In stars Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender, he finds performers who manage to deftly inhabit the characters, and just keep it from tipping over into Nicholas Sparks-style soapy melodrama.
"The Light Between Oceans" features fine performances and exquisite cinematography, production, and sound and costume design, and that's almost enough to shake off the clingy soapy residue that comes with the romantic drama territory. It's 1918 Australia, and Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender), a veteran of the Great War, is seeking some solitude to process his experience. He takes a post as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Island, and en route to his new home, catches the eye of a young local woman, Isabel (Vikander). After a picnic and some letter writing, the two are married and start a life together isolated on Janus.
Isabel takes to the stormy island (the crashing waves and wind are a ubiquitous presence in the film), with their simple, just-the-two-of-us rural lifestyle. But the isolation, as well as a few setbacks in starting their family, lead her down a dark path of depression.
There's a moral conundrum that arises in "The Light Between Oceans" where "saving a life" means something different from "doing the right thing." Tom, an upstanding man, is forced to make that distinction when the couple rescue a baby girl from a stranded dinghy. Doing the right thing would mean reporting the incident and calling the authorities. Saving a life means allowing his wife to care for and keep the baby as her own. While they enjoy domestic bliss on their island, it's an untenable situation in the tightknit community of their small village.
Fassbender plays Tom as a man whose emotions roil below a quiet surface. He's clearly shaken to the core and wracked with guilt over his experiences in the war, and his love with Isabel lightens his emotional burden for a time. When he shoulders her happiness along with a dose of guilt over the lies they've had to tell to preserve their family unit, it's more than he can bear.
Vikander's Isabel is the opposite of Tom, forthright, impulsive and openly emotional, collapsing into full body tantrums and meltdowns when things don't go the way she hopes they will. She brings the passion and fire to their relationship, while he brings the stability and strength. Those opposing styles don't always work out, as evidenced by the tangle they find themselves in when they tried to save a life or two.
"The Light Between Oceans" remains compelling throughout its two-hour-plus run time, but for a melodrama that walks and talks like a weepy, it has a strangely unemotional reservedness. Perhaps it's Fassbender's meticulously restrained performance, or the filmmaking, which is as carefully handmade and executed as an heirloom piece. It ends up more of a study in moral and ethical decision-making, than as an emotional catharsis or release, but it's a worthy journey nonetheless.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material and some sexual content.
Running time: 2:12