"One day, this will all feel like a dream."
A lot of people had a good year in 2015, and two of those people were Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander. With Hollywood’s most recent power couple (insert some kind of reference to Brangelina here) each being part of a string of critical successes from ‘Ex Machina’ to ‘Slow West’ and each securing an Oscar nomination with ‘Steve Jobs’ and ‘The Danish Girl’ with the latter winning the award for Vikander. So their latest project together is something that should peak anyone’s curiosity.
A lighthouse keeper named Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) and his wife Isabel (Vikander) live on an isolated island, cut off from the rest of society. One day they rescue an infant girl adrift at sea and adopt her as their own. Years later, the couple discovers the child's true parentage and are faced with the moral dilemma of their actions.
Given Derek Cianfrance’s track record (‘Blue Valentine’, ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’) of using the structure of his movies structure as an emotional sledge hammer as well as the terrific performances on display in all of them, how they convey and advance the central conceit of the film and further draw you deeper into the world being created on the screen, I was somewhat disappointed with just how predictable ‘The Light Between Oceans’ was. That is not to say the film is without redeeming qualities, but the structure and pace not only felt very conventional in their execution, but also drifted into a state of repetitiveness and simplicity.
The result of this is that not only does the movie inevitably feel tired and tedious to a certain extent, but it feels as if there is a lack of trust between the storyteller and his audience. It’s almost as if the movie is so worried audiences won’t be able to understand what is transgressing on the screen that they feel forced to repeat narrative beats and emotional pivots. Of course this repetitive feel could be an attempt to pan the running time but if that is the case then it comes as little consolation, as at 133 minutes the film’s pacing ultimately suffers and cutting it down by thirty minutes or so wouldn’t have hurt it at all. Instead of a tightly constructed, emotionally heavy drama the end result feels unfocussed and a little manipulative in how I tries to work in extra emotional beats where none exist.
However, the crux of the film has always been the performances of Vikander and Fassbender. Their roles are reminiscent of a far better movie that this could have been. Fassbender’s performance is a measured one, brimming with confidence and a need to protect his own domain and family. Given that Tom is a man battling PTSD from World War 1 and burdened by the randomness of life and death Fassbender uses subtle tactics to bring each conflicting aspect forward time and time again. He fully conveys the essence of a man separated from most, content with the company of just one other person. That aspect of Fassbender’s performance in particular seeks to make his on screen relationship seem that much more believable and truthful, you gain a sense of their bond as well as their emotional attachment to one another.
Vikander is equally fantastic in her role. In many ways eh is the polar opposite to the kind of performance Fassbender has to give. Whereas her male co-star portrayed a character who battled inner demons and contained his emotions, Vikander lets her own feelings run wild in the open air, meaning that more of the explosive dramatic scenes belong to her. Sadly the film itself doesn’t give her enough time to fully develop the character to the extent that would have made her a truly equal counterpart to Fassbender, but when she gets the room to breathe Vikander’s talent is easy to spot from a distance.
I am however, slightly frustrated with how Cianfrance chooses to shoot his actors and wish he could do so with the same skill with which he shoots the landscape, which is exceptionally photographed and composed. But when it comes to capturing the sentiments of his actors, he pushes the camera right up to them, as if forcing the audience to sink into the central emotions. While this technique can be effective at times, it is used so frequently and under such misguidance here that it becomes a distraction and while I would never call it detrimental to the film itself it does seek to continually take you out of the moment, and the film already has enough problems that any element that puts further distance between the audience and the filmmakers has a negative effect.
Despite being anchored by two impressive performances from Fassbender and Vikander, ‘The Light Between Oceans’ is too unfocussed and too simplistic in its execution to be the great film it should be.