The Light Between Oceans

Sep 6, 2016

More Thomas Hardy than Nicholas Sparks.

The Light Between Oceans

Grade: B+

Director: Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines)

Screenplay: Cianfrance from M.L. Stedman novel

Cast: Michael Fassbender  (Steve Jobs), Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina)

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 132 min

by John DeSando

“She doesn't belong to us. We can't keep her.” Tom (Michael Fassbender)

I was ready to witness a Nicholas Sparks imitator with The Light Between Oceans; rather I enjoyed a whiff of Thomas Hardy. A newly-married couple, Tom and Isabel (Alicia Vikander),  living on a remote lighthouse island off the west coast of Australia in the second decade of the twentieth century, find a baby washed ashore in a rowboat. The tension comes not from storms at sea but the ramifications of their keeping the child a secret.

Notwithstanding the absurd good fortune that they find a baby after her two miscarriages, the story becomes increasingly complex with intersecting themes of passionate love and doing the right thing. Where this does not become a maudlin, sentimental romance is in a few realistic details. Most of us would question whether we would keep the child, given that we may never have one ourselves, just as this couple does.

Along the way, the accomplished acting throws a powerful cast over the proceedings so that as outrageously melodramatic as it may seem, the film relentlessly shows at each turn how conscience does indeed make cowards of us all. Just as what he has done preys on Tom’s conscience, the needs of his wife to have a child overcome this otherwise beacon of upright manhood and good sense.

The end of WWI brings survivors like Tom an overpowering guilt that he survived while so many others didn’t. With the presence of a child who belongs to someone else, he is tortured by thoughts of taking a loved one away as the war did for so many families.

Fassbender is the Oscar contender he was meant to be. His every facial muscle works to show immense joy at his marriage and deep sorrow at his crime. Vikander is equally convincing as a youthful bride with grit and joy who convinces her husband, sworn to save lives in the lighthouse, to endanger himself and her by his foolish act.

The cinematography is frequently gorgeous, and the romantic Andre Desplat music lovely but manipulative. While writer and director Derek Cianfrance navigates occasionally successfully through some choppy tear-jerking scenes (the close-ups of Vikander’s tears are too many), it’s still also a melodrama with too many fateful turns.

Besides, what handsome, sensitive war veteran would exile himself to a lighthouse? Only if he knew Alicia Vikander would join him!

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at