Sunday, September 11, 2016
The Light Between Oceans (***)
Written for the Screen and Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Derek Cianfrance's The Light Between Oceans is probably too long. It's probably too dependent on overwrought emotion, manipulating its audience with tight close-ups of its beautiful cast crying with forlorn pain. But the film reached me. It reached me deep in the depths of my soul - right where it was aiming for. Its relentlessness in its tragedy, its document of time's toll on life, love and the human spirit, is both beautifully constructed and tirelessly maudlin. Cianfrance likes to take his time with these kinds of things. His 2010 masterpiece, Blue Valentine, was a devastating portrayal of how time and circumstance can wear down even a passionate love. His 2013 follow-up, The Place Beyond the Pines, was an uneven triptych about the lingering, generational effect of an act of violence. His films are about people entrapped by time, and its unstoppable cycle of joy and suffering. The Light Between Oceans is so deliberate about how its tells its story, very specific about how long it will take to make its points. If we live long enough, we are all confronted with tragedy, but if we live long enough still, we can still manage to find grace, or whatever peace may present itself until tragedy arrives again. His latest film is filled with people trying to escape their torment, or escape their guilt, only to find the task much harder than initially imagined.
Michael Fassbender plays Thomas Sherbourne, a former soldier who was come to Australia in 1918 soon after the end of the Great War. Memories of his service still scar his mind and his conscience, and though exact details are never discussed, we can see that he is haunted by his participation. He has arrived to accept a temporary position as a lighthouse keeper, seeking the three-month isolation that the position provides. Thomas seeks to be away from people, to be alone with his horrid memories, that is, until he meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander). A chance introduction enchants Thomas, and when he learns that his spot as the lighthouse keeper is changing from temporary to permanent, he asks Isabel to marry him, and live with him on the small island in the sea. The two, effervescently happy together, build a strong life together, raising chickens and crops, missing only a child to complete their family. But Isabel, unable to have children, is crestfallen, and for the first time their relationship is threatened by the severity of Isabel's depression after two miscarriages. Fate plays a hand when a wayward rowboat washes toward the shore, carrying a dead man and a crying newborn baby. Thomas knows his duty, he must place the event into his log, he must write down every detail and return the baby to land, but Isabel, blinded by her own desperate longing for a child, convinces him to leave it be, to tell others that the baby is their own.
Thomas never truly get over this lie Isabel convinces him to perpetuate, but he's able to bury it inside him and accept the wonderful life that having the baby girl brings. They name her Lucy, and the three begin an angelic existence, the three of them alone in their paradise. All is well until a visit to land brings Thomas into an introduction with Hannah (Rachel Weisz), a widow whose German husband was lost at sea along with her baby daughter, Grace. Thomas knows immediately what has happened, that Lucy is Grace, and that their unorthodox family has caused unimaginable pain to Hannah and her family. Unable to stand the guilt, Thomas begins to send Hannah letters and trinkets in an effort to show the bereaved wife and mother that Grace is indeed okay, but this only spurs Hannah's anguish, as she goes to the police demanding an investigation. As Hannah's search for Grace reignites, Thomas knows that the clock is ticking on his idyllic life with Isabel and Lucy. The film is based on the novel by Australian novelist M.L. Stedman, and the film has the patient pace of a sprawling book. Cianfrance's screenplay knows how important it is to get into the surgical details of these characters, to show they are all effected by pride, envy and their visceral instincts. Hannah, the unquestionable victim, has the unenviable task of taking her daughter away from a devoted, loving household. How does one even begin to imagine the psychological toll something like that takes?
Cianfrance doesn't appear to believe in subtlety, and because Fassbender is known for his intensity, the Irish actor follows Cianfrance into some frighteningly on-the-nose sequences in which the tormented, but honorable Thomas does more signaling than he should. Don't get me wrong, Fassbender is fine enough here, but it's the performances from Vikander and Weisz that truly stand out. The two Oscar-winning actresses are doing extraordinary work here, with both Isabel and Hannah being strangled by their moral conundrums and their personal losses. Like Thomas, we cannot begrudge Isabel's desperation when the time comes to keep the lost infant, nor can we fault Hannah for wanting to snatch Lucy away from her loving family so she can reclaim her daughter, Grace. The characters are two halves of the same coin, and yet both actresses are able to translate that pain and that joy in such incredibly unique ways. This is easily the best thing I've ever seen Vikander do, as she continues to build an impressive resume with a varied array of expressive performances. The rawness of her Isabel is what gives this movie its weight, and what helps you believe that Thomas would betray his own duty for her. Weisz, always lovely and always inherently natural in her characters, plays Hannah with the perfect balance of indignation and fragility. Like in a film from earlier this year, The Lobster, Weisz does not arrive till nearly halfway through, but her presence is such an overwhelming enhancement.
This feels like a bit of a shift, style-wise, for Cianfrance. His previous two films were gritty contemporary tales, enriched by a cinema-verité spirit, where The Light Between Oceans is a period piece novel adaptation. It almost feels like the forty-two year-old director is growing into a more classical style, or at least attempting to. But its easy to see where Stedman's novel fits thematically into his previous work, and allows Cianfrance to make more commentary on life's unfortunate predictabilities. Despite the tone of his movies, I don't see Cianfrance as a grim filmmaker, nor do I think he's cynical. On the contrary, his romanticism is what creates the tragedy when it comes face to face with reality. There's less handheld camera work here than in Blue Valentine and Place Beyond the Pines, but along with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, Cianfrance keeps the camera intimate. He keeps the audience deep in the crux of the characters thoughts and emotions. He expects us to feel what these characters feel, and he executes this by placing the camera so deep into the action. This is not a great film, and it's far from the masterwork that was Blue Valentine, but it does improve upon the shallow vastness of Place Beyond the Pines, and it does allow Vikander and Weisz to produce some truly astonishing performances. It's tragedy felt real to me, even in its over-the-top presentation. It's display of moral choices was earnest, as well as its portrayal of romance and its possible devastating effects. The things we do for love.