Joining the unhappy cinematic tradition of off-screen couples producing a forgettable on-screen partnership, The Light Between Oceans may not be a disaster of Brangelina or Bennifer proportions, but it’s a right old mangling of potentially strong material.
It’s 1926 and Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) has taken on the position of lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a remote, unpopulated island off the coast of Western Australia. Just prior to starting his post he meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander) and a few perfunctory getting-to-know-you scenes later, they’re married and the island’s population has doubled to two.
Soon after suffering their second miscarriage, the couple witness a boat wash up on shore, carrying a baby and a dead man. On Isabel’s pleading insistence, they keep the baby and pass it off as their own to the townsfolk on the mainland. It’s a deceit they soon come to regret.
M L Stedman’s popular novel dealt largely with the moral dilemma of the couple’s decision to keep the baby that isn’t theirs, which brings with it an increasingly complex set of ramifications as the truth unfolds. The film brushes over this with very brief and broad strokes. There are a couple of cursory exchanges between the leads, but director Derek Cianfrance seems more intent on bringing us a series of golden sunsets and sweeping vistas of coastlines.
Even more distracting is Alexandre Desplat’s overbearing and tooth-rottingly saccharine score. The main refrain is so intrusive that at one stage one of the characters actually starts playing it on the piano.
Then there’s the matter of the accents. This after all is a story set in Australia, and while one doesn’t want to be a pedant about this, a bit of consistency isn’t much to ask for. Both the Irish/German Fassbender and the Swedish Vikander have fairly neutral accents that don’t sound at all out of place. Rachel Weisz, on the other hand, retains her strong English clip, which wouldn’t be so strange if she didn’t have ridgy-didge Aussie Bryan Brown for a father. And a German character, who is explicitly referred to as having a German accent, sounds as true blue as Brown.
And everyone mispronounces the town Albany, in which they’re living!
The critical problem though is that despite the buckets of drama that the central story contains, the script barely scratches its surface during the languid two and a quarter hour running time. Cianfrance had a similar problem of overlength with his previous, The Place Beyond the Pines.
The cast are uniformly acting their socks off, with Weisz (the accent notwithstanding) registering the strongest. The characters are all pretty sketchily drawn though, such niceties as backstory take a back seat to the tourist friendly cinematography. Ironically, Tasmania and New Zealand stand in for Western Australia.
This is a classic case of a mismatch between director and material, with indie regular Cianfrance seemingly over-relying on the sweep of the environs at the disservice of the film’s narrative and central theme.
The Light Between Oceans is released nationally on November 3
Richard Leathem @dickiegee