I never did figure out which oceans The Light Between Oceans is talking about. Last I checked, Britain only borders one ocean. Unless maybe this is a former empire chunk in the southern hemisphere, where the accents are beautiful but non-distinct? Wherever they are, the story isn’t actually about the oceans; it’s about the light between them, and the tower attached to that light, and the land attached to that tower, and the people attached to that land, and the woman not attached to anything because life utterly and unexpectedly blows sometimes.
For Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) a little quiet time after four years in the Great War is a welcome change of pace. He agrees to become the lighthouse caretaker on Janus Rock, living all alone far, far away from civilization. Tom does, however, take advantage of frequent visits from the supply ship to send letters to Isabel (Alicia Vikander), a resident he met just before his departure from the town across the sea. Isabel pulls a Disney Princess and agrees to marry Tom after three meetings, two letters, and one picnic. The two live happily together on Janus Rock despite sad complications regarding Isabel’s pregnancies. Fate, however, likes the idea of increasing the population of Janus Rock, and brings the disheartened couple a baby in a boat. Rather than report the infant castaway, Tom and Isabel decide to keep her and raise the baby as their own, deceiving their friends, family, and the authorities into thinking she is their child by birth.
These are two very good people who do one very bad thing. But it’s not easy to argue with a woman so desperate for a child and so convinced it’ll never happen. This role belonged to Alicia Vikander from the get-go. She plays the innocent, happy mother one second and the emotionally amputated prisoner the next by simply changing the way her eye catches the light. It’s practically a magic trick. Abracadabringmybabyback.
The same goes for Michael Fassbender. Tom isn’t a man of many words; he spends more time in contemplation than he does in share circles – thus why he took the job as a volunteer castaway. With such little dialogue and so few people to interact with, it is very hard to make a character like Tom likable. But you really feel for him. You feel for the hard decisions he has to make. You feel the connection he has with his family and his work, and you understand without doubt that he’s an honest guy who will do the wrong thing for the right reasons. Just like Alicia Vikander, this role was made for Michael Fassbender and his mastery of the glistening eyes.
Both Fassbender and Vikander have plenty of opportunity to practice that cry-on-demand technique throughout The Light Between Oceans. The film starts with the typical story of two lonely souls finding happiness in each other’s company before having to face a difficult decision that nearly tears them apart. What’s missing is the happy, uplifting resolution at the end. The Light Between Oceans starts off at a fantastic pace (mercifully, since everyday life on a lighthouse island doesn’t see too much variety). It sometimes jumps several months at a time, focusing on the milestones in Tom and Isabel’s life. At a certain point, however, that running pace moves to a limping crawl as we go through one heartbreaking moment after the next, seemingly within hours of each other. She cries, he cries, the kid cries, villagers cry, the constable sighs and considers his life choices up to now, someone offers tea, and every woman in the shop has a good cry about it. Yes, child-stealing a tough subject all around, and I can only imagine the pain that Tom and Isabel feel when they realize their happy island life can’t go on forever. It totally sucks. But that sudden halt of pace from the intro to the final half feels more like a broken femur than a dramatic pause.
The Light Between Oceans is a sad, quiet, contemplative movie. It’s interesting to see where their decisions lead them, especially since these decisions are soul-shreddingly difficult. That said, the film takes one subject and one problem and shows it from as many angles as cinematically possible, rather than trying to move from one hurtle to the next. The Light Between Oceans is heartfelt because of the magnificent performances, the stunning scenery, and the seamless musical score – but I still feel like it could have been more; a little more moving forward and a little less stopping and sobbing. I would give The Light Between Oceans a 5.5/10.