The Light Between Oceans directed by Derek Cianfrance is a beautiful and heartbreaking film. The light refers to the lighthouse on Janus, a fictitious island off the coast of Australia where the Great Southern and Indian Oceans meet. Besides a physical presence, the lighthouse serves as a metaphor. Despite a guiding light, some people, like ships, are destined to veer off course.
There are no villains in The Light Between Oceans, based on M.L. Stedman’s bestselling novel, just good people making bad decisions. Life is never fair, but when humans attempt to correct that imbalance on their own, the damage can be devastating, inflicting pain on the innocent.
World War I has ended and Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia, a hero who suffers from survivor’s guilt. Why did he live when so many others died? Meeting with officials in the small town of Partageuse, Tom is presented with the opportunity to fill in for the lighthouse keeper on Janus. He takes the job, welcoming the isolation and solitude the remote island will provide.
A young woman in Partageuse, Isabel Graysmark, has other plans. After meeting Tom during a dinner at the harbormaster’s home, she elicits a promise that he will write to her while on Janus. Their letters become more intimate, Tom opening up to Isabel in ways that surprise him. When Tom’s six-month stint is up, he returns to Partageuse and takes Isabel on a picnic. She expresses a desire to see Janus. When he tells her that only his wife can live there with him, she proposes, undeterred by the prospect of living alone with Tom on the island. Tom is offered the post full-time and he and Isabel are married.
The film is perfectly cast with Michael Fassbender playing Tom and Alicia Vikander as Isabel. It’s no secret that the two actors fell in love during filming and are now together. Their chemistry on screen is palpable adding to the realism of this touching love story. Isabel not only loves Tom, but loves their life on Janus. Polar opposites, Tom and Isabel nonetheless seem perfectly matched. Their solitude only deepens their love affair and, in the process, Tom begins to find a life he never thought was possible. He loves Isabel to the depths of his soul, but he’s also a man with a conscience. His two sides will come into conflict, forcing him to make a decision that he will later regret. Tom is the strong and silent type and Fassbender’s facial expressions and body language speak volumes. We can sense the turmoil boiling underneath Tom’s stoic exterior. Believing that past deeds have doomed him to a life of suffering, he accepts, even welcomes, that outcome.
Tragedy strikes when Isabel’s first pregnancy ends in an early miscarriage. While her second pregnancy holds more promise, a spontaneous birth ends up in a stillborn son. Isabel is inconsolable, having told everyone in Partageuse that they were expecting, she dreads telling her parents, who lost two sons in the war, that their hopes for a grandchild are slim. She spends her days on a hill staring at the two small white crosses honoring their dead babies. Vikander, who won an Academy Award this year for her performance in The Danish Girl, demonstrates that recognition was no fluke. Her performance is mesmerizing, taking us inside Isabel’s vortex of feelings. While her love for Tom is clear, even stronger is her desire to be a mother, to create the family she promised him and herself when she made the decision to live on Janus.
Was it a coincidence, a test, or a cruel trick of fate? A small row boat lands on Janus carrying a dead man and a live infant. Tom’s first instinct is to record the event in the official log and contact the authorities. Isabel pleads with him to wait. A day turns into a few days. When it becomes clear to Tom that Isabel wants – needs – the baby she has named Lucy, he goes against his own judgment, burying the man and keeping the baby’s existence a secret.
Because Isabel was pregnant, Tom is able to tell Ralph and Bluey, the two men who visit Janus regularly to bring food and other supplies, that Lucy is theirs. Word gets back to Isabel’s parents who are eager to meet their grandchild. There’s a joyous greeting at the dock and a christening is planned. Outside the church before the vicar arrives, Tom sees a young woman kneeling before a headstone. After she leaves, he takes a look, startled to read the inscription: “In loving memory of Franz Johannes Roennfeldt, dearly beloved husband of Hannah, and of their precious daughter, Grace Ellen. Watched over by God.” Ralph explains to Tom that Hannah’s husband, an Austrian who was thought to be a German and targeted by locals still angry about the war, was chased down to the shore one evening. At Hannah’s urging, Franz took Grace and, hoping to escape the mob, jumped into a rowboat and pushed out into the inky waters. Franz and Grace were presumed lost at sea, leaving behind a grieving Hannah.
Tom is now hit with the full force of their actions. Their joy at having Lucy has come at another family’s expense. Tom and Isabel return to Janus, but he is haunted by Hannah’s despair. Years pass and the Sherbornes return to Partageuse for a celebration of the Janus lighthouse. Hannah and her sister, Gwen (Emily Barclay), daughters of the city’s wealthiest man, Sentimus Potts (Bryan Brown), are introduced to Isabel. Hannah is overcome with emotion upon seeing Lucy. Gwen explains to Isabel that Hannah’s daughter would have been Lucy’s age but was lost at sea with her father. Now Isabel also realizes the impact of that fateful decision. But, as she tells Tom, revealing the truth would mean disrupting Lucy’s life. Tom, however, remains conflicted and what he does next will set in motion events that will upend not only Lucy’s life but his and Isabel’s as well.
Rachel Weisz is perfect as Hannah, her anguish over losing her daughter matched only by her despair to win over her daughter later on. Yet perhaps the most effective player in the drama is Hannah’s dead husband, Franz (Leon Ford), who appears in flashbacks. Hannah once asked her husband how he could forgive those who wronged him. You only have to forgive once; but holding on to resentment lasts a lifetime. His answer resonates and will inspire Hannah to try to right so many wrongs.
The Light Between Oceans opens nationwide September 2, 2016.
Photos courtesy of Dreamworks