It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Great drama requires trust. The director has to trust his actors to convey the complexity of the human experience without smothering their performances in manipulative filmmaking devices. He also has to trust the viewer to bring their own interpretations and emotions to the story, meeting the characters halfway along the spectrum of the human experience. Derek Cianfrance can’t find this trust in “The Light Between Oceans," an adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s novel. It's a film with greatness within that’s been lost due to varying degrees of distrust; ridiculously tight close-ups in soft focus feel like they’re pushing you to cry instead of allowing emotion to come organically. Narrative beats and themes are hit repeatedly, just to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to feel something. Buried beneath this melodrama—but shining through nearly enough to justify a look—one can see the film that could have been, as anchored by great performances and emotional truth. It’s just lost in the fog.
Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender, giving a very measured, confident performance) is a World War I veteran battling Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder before his condition really had a name. In some of the film’s best scenes, we learn that Tom has been burdened by the randomness of life and death. Why did he live but his fellow soldiers die? One almost gets the sense that Tom doesn’t think he “deserves” to have made it home, and that he’s going to spend the rest of his life in solitude, refusing to take the creature comforts that other young men lost forever when they went to war.
To that end, Tom signs up to take a job that not many would want, manning an extremely remote lighthouse in Australia, at a spot in which one can see two oceans from its top. The last lighthouse keeper was fired when he told someone that he allowed his wife to signal a passing ship. The break in protocol was a small problem—the fact that his wife had been dead a few years was a much bigger one. And yet this not-at-all-coveted job changes Tom’s life when he meets the daughter of his new boss, a headstrong and beautiful young lady named Isabel (Alicia Vikander). Before long, Isabel and Tom are married, planning to start a family on Janus Island. Isabel gets pregnant, but loses the baby in a heartbreaking scene in which Tom is in the lighthouse and she can’t get to him. She gets pregnant again. Tragedy strikes again.
While Isabel and Tom are mourning the loss of their second child, a miracle happens. A rowboat washes ashore, carrying a dead body and a baby. No one on the mainland knows that Isabel lost the second baby. They could just take this new child as their own and no one would know any differently. At first, the plan seems to work perfectly as Isabel, Tom, and their new daughter Lucy find happiness, but a visit to the mainland forces an encounter between Tom and a mysterious woman (Rachel Weisz) that changes everything.
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