Writer-director Derek Cianfrance specializes in tastefully staged, evocatively lit suffering. His breakthrough film, 2010’s Blue Valentine, tracks a young couple (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) falling in love, getting married, raising a child, then slowly disintegrating as a family. His follow-up, 2012’s The Place Beyond The Pines, follows two generations of misery, as a stunt man (Gosling again) turns to crime to support his estranged lover and their child, with long-term painful consequences. Both films are beautifully acted, beautifully shot, and designed to leave viewers emotionally wrung out. They’re also both notably obsessed with the patient, noble anguish of men who just want to hold their families together, in spite of women who deny them access to their children and to the warm and loving relationships they once had. In Cianfrance’s latest, that theme gets stretched to the breaking point, turning melancholy into melodrama, and hitting the “sacrificing man, faithless woman” notes hard enough to snap strings and break keys. Its characters have relatable reasons for their behavior, but that behavior becomes extreme enough to take audiences out of the story.
The film, based on M.L. Stedman’s best-selling novel, opens in 1918. Quiet, withdrawn former soldier Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) accepts a three-month posting as a lighthouse keeper on an isolated island off Western Australia, where the Southern Ocean and Indian Ocean meet. Warned that living a hundred miles from his nearest neighbor can be lonely, he says he’d welcome some time alone, presumably to recover from the stress of his service in World War I, though he never discusses the details. Then the job becomes permanent, for foreboding reasons, and he marries vibrant local woman Isabel Graysmark (Ex Machina’s Alicia Vikander), who joins him on his island.
For a while, they're achingly happy, with the kind of joy that can only be expressed through expansive, slow-roll montages of exploratory sex and dappled sunlit days together. But their attempts to have a child together fail, in drastic and tragic ways. When a boat washes up on the island's shore, containing a dead man and a live baby, Isabel insists they bury the man, adopt the child, and pretend it's theirs. This initially seems like a victimless, forgivable crime — the infant gets a loving home, Isabel gets her dearest wish — but The Light Between Oceans plays it as though Isabel had suggested mass murder. Tom is a painfully honest, duty-driven man, and falsifying his report book is clearly an agonizing moral compromise for him. As it turns out, Isabel's decision has lasting and ugly consequences, involving the baby's true mother, Hannah (Rachel Weisz). The first half of Light Between Oceans builds an idealized, magical relationship between Tom and Isabel. The second half tears it apart slowly and painfully, emphasizing Tom's helplessness and Isabel's pitiless selfishness, which is starting to look like Cianfrance's favorite theme.
That emotional imbalance is more blatant in Oceans than in Cianfrance's previous films, largely because the characters are so broadly drawn, with emphatic expressions of their devotion and their dissolution covering up their lack of complexity. Fassbender and Vikander both evoke that emotion exquisitely, but a glossy artificiality hangs over the entire process. The situation is contrived and methodically designed for maximum frustration, misunderstanding, and miscarriage of justice. Cianfrance is a far more restrained and formal filmmaker than Lars von Trier, but Oceans still feels at times like a von Trier movie, an engine carefully tuned for misery and emotional disintegration. Most specifically, it resembles a gender-flipped version of Breaking The Waves, with a husband rather than a wife immolating himself in an outsized act of self-martyrdom to protect a selfish, faithless spouse. It seems designed to start arguments about who's at fault, based on who experiences the most dramatic and Oscar-worthy pain, but then to shut down those arguments by parading Tom's purity and dignity.
Narrative aside, Light Between Oceans is remarkably beautiful. True Detective season one cinematographer Adam Arkapaw gives the film a warm, lush glow in the early going, and a dank chill as it becomes appropriate. An early shot of a train chugging cross-country with the wind at its back, so the smoke from its engine chases it in a static, towering cloud, becomes meditative and hypnotic, without a human character in sight. The scenes with Tom and Isabel alone on the island are swoony idylls, compelling even when nothing happens for long, dreamy stretches. And while the sound design is obtrusive — especially during a punishing storm, or when characters wander the beach, amid crashing waves and screaming wings — it's also immersive and mood-setting, almost deliberately overwhelming. This is old-fashioned moviemaking, focusing on craft and composition instead of relentless, efficient pacing.
But at 132 minutes, the story drags to the point where even natural beauty and sweet intimacy start to wear on the nerves. Cianfrance pushes too hard for his audience's emotional response, with little nuance and strange selectivity. He never explores the wartime experiences that left Tom numb, or that sparked such self-loathing that he desperately craves punishment by the end of the film. But without detailing that pain, Cianfrance doesn't miss any chance to remind viewers of it, and to wallow in it until it feels more forced and performative than experiential. The long, torturously slow relationship build-up winds up hollow, because it's so obviously only in place to make Tom's fall from grace more painful. Cianfrance's ultimate message — here in particular, and in retrospect, more subtly in his past films as well — seems to be that men are more devoted and faithful than women, and that they feel emotions more keenly because they feel compelled to keep them buried. That's a queasy message, no matter how pretty the wrapper is that it comes in.