Movie Review: ‘THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS’ will make you shed an ocean of tears


Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Michael FassbenderAlicia VikanderRachel Weisz, Florence Clery

Director Derek Cianfrance has made a strikingly fantastic companion piece to 2010’s BLUE VALENTINE with his latest romantic melodrama, THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS. Both carry similar thematic tensions that arise out of the things people do for love – whether that be forcing a once healthy marriage to work, or making certain moral compromises to protect it. He masterfully brings a sweeping cinematic vision to author M.L. Stedman’s tale. Hands down (and hyperbole be damned), this is the most romantic movie of the year – and the one you’ll shed the most tears over.

Tom Sherborne (Michael Fassbender) has been made broken and solemn by war. Reticent to never truly live again, he takes a solitary job maintaining the lighthouse (it’s a metaphor) on the uninhabited island of Janus (the island is also symbolic). However, right before he leaves, he meets a captivating woman, Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander). She’s headstrong, vivacious and gorgeous. Needless to say, she runs away with his heart. The pair marry, but their perfect relationship is marred by miscarriage. A few days after her latest miscarriage, a ray of light is bestowed upon the pair when a rowboat washes ashore, carrying a dead man and his wailing infant daughter. Isabel convinces Tom to not report it and raise the child as their own. Consequences begin to grow more pervasive when, on a trip to the mainland, Tom happens upon the dead man’s wealthy widow/ baby’s birth mother Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz). Things grow complicated from there.

Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander in DreamWorks Pictures poignant drama THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS. Courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures.

Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander in THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS. Courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures.

Similar to Stedman’s novel, Cianfrance’s script explores the grey, morally murky territory the couple ventures into with their selfish but understandably human actions. It’s a novel brought to cinematic life, filled with the same themes of forgiveness and moral ambiguity you might dissect at a book club meeting. Not only is it thought-provoking, it kneads a hole in your heart. It’s unforgettable and haunting. I mean, I can’t even think about the ending without getting choked up all over again. Emotions are deeply felt. Love, sadness, loneliness, betrayal and heartbreak sting. Thanks to Fassbender and Vikander’s pitch-perfect, raw and vulnerable performances, Tom’s guilt feels palpable – as does Isabel’s desperation. It goes right for the gut. As they fall in love, we too fall in love with them, rooting for them to triumph over all adversity – even if they brought these problems on themselves. Plus, not for nothing, seeing Fassy with a cute-as-a-button child (Florence Clery) made my ovaries explode. Am I biased? Admittedly so.

The immediacy of the narrative is reflected in a few sequences that utilize handheld shots. Complexities within the characters’ motivations are key; complexities within the story are not – and Cianfrance’s calculated restraint forbids this. Erin Benach’s (THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES) costume design earns top marks. The characters’ clothes subtly reflect the wearer’s emotional status (Alicia in ethereal whites. Fassbender in heavy wools.) Alexandre Desplat’s score is swoon-worthy (a rarity whenever it’s not), heavy on the lush romanticism whilst also foreboding. Here, its timing is precise – never obtrusive or unwelcomed. Adam Arkapaw’s (MACBETH) cinematography is absolutely breathtaking, beguiling to behold. Though it fluidly follows the story (glowing warmth for romance, a colder gray for the couple’s travails), the visual palate is most interesting when he includes naturalistic warm and cool tones within a scene, layering in sly atmospheric details.

Set against a beautiful, sweeping, and often dangerous landscape (which echoes the themes and symbolism), THE LIGHT BETWEEN THE OCEANS is easy to get lost in. It’s a challenge to emerge from this immersive tale without being forever affected.

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS opens on September 2.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.