"The Light Between Oceans" is lushly shot and exquisitely acted. It's also elegiac bordering on stodgy, a soapy, workmanlike drama reminding of a 1990s-era BBC production at best and a network Movie of the Week at worst. An adaptation of M.L. Stedman's 2012 novel, this strikingly conventional third major feature from writer-director Derek Cianfrance (2010's "Blue Valentine
" and 2013's "The Place Beyond the Pines
") is predictable to a fault, its rush through events adopting the feel of CliffsNotes in cinematic form. It is difficult to get too involved when the machinations of a plot can be heard grinding along, its characters treated as pawns. This, unfortunately, is what happens here.
With World War I coming to a close, soldier Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) has returned to Australia following a harrowing four years on the Western Front. The solitude of being the lighthouse keeper on the desolate shores of Janus Rock sounds appealing to him, but when he falls in love with and marries Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), she soon joins him on the island. When two consecutive pregnancies lead to tragic miscarriages, Isabel is left devastated and embarrassed. Just when it appears she has nothing left to live for, a stroke of fate drifts their way in a rowboat, its adult male inhabitant dead and his crying baby in desperate need of help. Tom wants to follow protocol and report it, but Isabel has other ideas. A hasty cover-up ensues, the couple passing off the infant, whom they name Lucy, as their own. Years pass, and with them comes a discovery on the mainland that shakes Tom to his core: their child's birth mother, Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), is very much alive, still grieving her husband and daughter whom she believes were lost at sea.
"The Light Between Oceans" relies upon a big deus ex machina moment for its story's morally murky eliciting circumstance, then falls back at least a few more times on a series of forced chance encounters to keep the ball rolling. As leisurely and measured as the film's pacing is, the editing strikes as choppy, checking the box on its every plot beatfrom the early romance and hasty wedding of Tom and Isabel, to their misfortunes having children, to their scheme to bury the evidence and pretend the child they've found is their own, to the gradual dissolution of their not-so-best laid plans once Tom's guilt and Isabel's resulting bitterness threaten to swallow them wholewithout truly enveloping the viewer in this world and these characters. All one can do, then, is patiently wait for all the pieces to play out while admiring performances much better than the trite script they are in.
As Tom Sherbourne, who has seen his share of calamities fighting in the war and finds little respite once he returns, Michael Fassbender (2015's "Steve Jobs
") transforms a relatively quiet, internal role into one of escalating anguish and personal sacrifice. He is well-paired with the immensely talented Alicia Vikander (2016's "Jason Bourne
"), who in the span of less than a year and a halfsince her breakthrough in 2015's "Ex Machina
"has deservedly become one of the most in-demand of actors. In her guttural need to be a mother, Isabel is willing to do whatever necessary to see this dream come to fruition. Her initially dirty plotting and some key decisions she makes in the third act as she, too, struggles with doing what is right turns her into a slightly more modern Lady Macbeth figure. Vikander is superb in juggling these tough, at-war actions and emotions. And, as Hannah, Rachel Weisz (2013's "Oz the Great and Powerful
") dives into the dramatically demanding waters of an otherwise underwritten character who begins to suspect her long-lost daughter may be closer to her than she previously expected.
"The Light Between Oceans" has been moodily lensed by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (2015's "McFarland, USA"), and the sound design, full of whistling wind gusts and rough seas, brings an eerily foreboding lonesomeness to the opening half-hour. Under different circumstances, this setup could be the start of a supernatural thriller. Instead, it heads in a different direction, one that poses a few provocative "what-would-you-do?" questions, but treads down a familiar beaten path not entirely unlike, oddly enough, the 1991 NBC made-for-TV miniseries "Switched at Birth." There is also a faint air of both 2005's "Brokeback Mountain
" and 2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
" in the closing scenes, but they hold none of the same throat-catching pathos. With the sturdily acted but ultimately rickety "The Light Between Oceans," director Derek Cianfrance wants to tug at the viewers' heartstrings. Alas, he comes up as chilly as a stormy May night on the forlorn cliffs of Janus Rock.