I’ll be able to judge my success as a media mogul when the title of Derek Cianfrance’s latest film becomes industry short hand for a certain time of year. “Ah,” people will say around late October-early November when studios start to roll out prestige pictures, “there’s the light between the oceans”. At this point in the calendar most of the king-making festivals have already occurred – Sundance, Toronto, Tribeca, New York, London and Venice – and films that are much hyped finally start to become unveiled to the masses, with the hope of sustaining award season buzz. This is to say that Cianfrance’s latest film is his most unashamedly award-friendliest yet, losing much of the grittiness that imbued his earlier features, and yet it still somehow feels like the film that he’s been building towards for a long time.
Cianfrance marked himself as a director to watch with 2011’s Blue Valentine, a non-linear romantic drama that’s easily one of the most devastatingly sad films of the past decade, before taking a sharp turn with 2013’s The Place Beyond the Pines. A family tragedy that examines long-reaching consequences of a father’s sins, Pines felt muddled and uneven owing to the fact that Cianfrance seemed to be trying to juggle too many stories at once. In this regard, The Light Between Ocean’s represents a huge improvement. Michael Fassbender stars as Thomas Sherbourne, a damaged World War I veteran who becomes a lighthouse keeper in an incredibly isolated part of Australia. Gradually, he falls in love with Isabella Greymark, played by Alicia Vikander, and two start to build a paradise on their island. Gradually, this paradise becomes marred by Isabella’s miscarriage, but then the couple’s prayers are seemingly answered when a life boat with a dead man and a baby wash ashore. Things seem idyllic for the couple, until a visit to the mainland reveals that their baby might not be orphaned at all.
Clearly, this is a plot that combines themes that Cianfrance is deeply familiar with: the redemptive power of nature, absentee fathers and the practical costs of love. It feels like he’s been building towards this film for a while. The film isn’t as stylistically daring as, say, Blue Valentine, with the story being told fairly linearly, but this feels like growth on Cianfrance’s part. The film doesn’t juggle stories to build tension and emotion, and this leaves the impression that Cianfrance is confident enough as a director to rely on subtlety and the audience’s intellect. That said, though the film’s running time of just under two and a half hours does start to make itself known, especially in the final act, and I did find myself wishing that he could have brought a little bit more flash to the screen.
As could be expected for a film that signifies the start of awards season, the performances are uniformly excellent. Fassbender proves yet again why he’s one of this generation’s most enigmatic performers. As the film’s central predicament makes itself known it could have denigrated into melodrama and it’s largely his subtlety that prevents it from falling into that. The same can be said for Alicia Vikander, who really carries the film when it starts to drag. The best performance however comes from Rachel Weisz, who comes dangerously close to stealing the film out from under the two leads had she had a bigger role.
It’s entirely inconceivable that the main players in The Light Between Oceans could see themselves nominated for a number of Academy Awards next year, though if that were the case it would be more proof that the Academy likes to play it as safe as possible. That said, if this is the start of the race to Oscar, you could do a lot worse.
The Light Between Oceans is in cinemas now.