Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Light Between Oceans: A Review (Review #857)


I've not read The Light Between Oceans, so yet again I cannot say whether the film version is better or worse than the book.  I however hope that the book is better, and imagine it is so.   The Light Between Oceans is so overt in it desperate efforts to be 'sweeping' and 'romantic' that it borders on parody, all but whispering "give me an Oscar"...even if two of the stars already have them. 

Whispering is a good way to describe The Light Between Oceans.  There's a lot of whispering in the film, so much so that they should have included subtitles.  This is the type of movie that declares its intentions of being 'lush', 'romantic', even 'touching', but only ends up frustrating someone who wants some sense of actual human emotion.

Emotionally stunted World War I veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) accepts what at first is a temporary assignment as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Island in western Australia.  While on the mainland, he meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander).  She openly asks him to marry her and take her to Janus, but he declines.  He does agree to correspond with her.  Quickly, romance grows, and they marry.

At first, the Sherbournes love Janus and each other, but tragedy strikes twice when Isabel miscarries both her babies.  She soon starts having emotional difficulties coping with life, and Tom in his quiet way attempts to keep her on an even keel.  Fate takes an unexpected turn when a rowboat washes upon Janus.  Inside is a dead man...and a crying baby.

Take a guess what happens next.  I'll wait...

In a shocking twist, Isabel urges Tom to not mention the dead man & baby to his superiors and pass the baby off as their own.   Tom doesn't want to at first, but Isabel is in such a state, and he loves her so isn't long before he sends message that Isabel had a premature birth, and that they now have a daughter whom they name Lucy.

Lucy is brought up by a happy Isabel and a loving but internally conflicted Tom.  Back on the mainland Isabel's family is delighted that their daughter has both happiness and a child.  At Lucy's baptism Tom wanders to the graveyard to encounter a mysterious figure mourning at a grave.  He quickly finds that this woman, Hannah (Rachel Weisz) is mourning her German-born husband and daughter Grace...lost at sea.

Obviously, Tom finds that Hannah is Lucy's real mother, so now he's in a quandary.  He loves Lucy (sorry, couldn't resist) and Isabel, but he cannot bear the guilt of knowing that Hannah has no closure.  He secretly sends message to Hannah telling her that her daughter is alive and well.  This of course sends Hannah into a frenzy to find her beloved Grace, getting help from her formerly estranged father, Septimus (Brian Brown).

Tom, Isabel, and Lucy come back to the mainland to celebrate the Janus Island Lighthouse's 40th Anniversary, and there Tom & Isabel meet Hannah face-to-face. Hannah reveals that if she had a daughter, she'd be Lucy's age.  She also reveals how she lost her husband and daughter.  While Tom has always known, Isabel puts two-and-two together.  Despite his guilt, Isabel insists that things are best left as they are.

Needless to say, Tom doesn't feel that way.  He sends a rattle that came with Lucy, one that is recognized by one of Tom's coworkers, who promptly turns him in for the reward money Septimus announces.  Tom is arrested for murder, suspected of having killed Hannah's husband.  Lucy is torn from Isabel's arms and delivered to Hannah, who doesn't seem to quite understand why this child won't answer to Grace and wants nothing to do with her.

Curious that.

Eventually, before he is sent to trial and execution, Isabel (who has refused to speak to him) rushes to his side and confesses that she was the brains of the operation.  Hannah, moved by their story, says she will ask for clemency for them. 

Many years pass, and Lucy Grace Rutherford seeks out a retired Tom.  She reveals she is the girl in the boat, and he reveals Isabel died in the interim, but leaves a letter for her.  Lucy Grace also comes with her own son, whom Tom takes on as his unofficial grandson.

Part of my issue with The Light Between Oceans is how overt it is in its desire, its need, its call, to be 'romantic'.  The cinematography is in an almost permanent gauze that screams out how the images are suppose to sweep us into a story that hammers at us with its pleas to be seen as epic and grand.

It's not so much a case of gilding the lily as it is drowning said lily with excessive attention.

I suppose the cinematography had to do some screaming because the actors in The Light Between Oceans were told to essentially murmur their lines by screenwriter/director Derek Cianfrance.  So much soft speaking between Fassbender and Vikander several scenes play like parodies of those old Obsession Perfume commercials. For those of you not old enough to remember this series of ads that soon became sources of mockery...

If you can imagine a whole movie where everyone, even sailors and police officers, speak in this breathy, soft voice, then you know how people spoke in The Light Between Oceans

Actually, I think the people in the Obsession commercials spoke louder than those in The Light Between Oceans.  Even in moments where people would probably be shouting or screaming (such as when Isabel and Tom argue about what to do with the foundling or during the storm when Isabel is having her miscarriage and rushes to Tom in the lighthouse), everyone has this very 'poetic' soft voice that is practically parody.  One wonders if they shot the film inside a library.

Sadly, the soft tones of the actors doesn't help make much of a contrived plot.

I have a big problem with how Tom just happened upon Hannah and knew that Lucy was connected to her.  What if they hadn't come upon her and discovered the truth at the Lighthouse Anniversary?  Vikander played that part well, the conflicting emotions coming across her face.  That, however, was her only good scene, as she was so sotto voce that she came across as if not completely dim certainly someone who never was a real person.

No, I'm walking that back, when Lucy was ripped from her arms, she did a good job too.  Not in the Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice way but not bad either.

Fassbender was surprisingly one-note, all pensive looks and loving looks, depending on the scene.  Weisz looked as if she was in another movie altogether, as her character never made a case as to why she would have been better than the Sherbournes.

Actually, throughout the whole film we never got a real sense of how Tom was so torn by his secret.  I think many people probably would have sided with Isabel and thought Tom was an idiot for tearing Lucy from Isabel's arms to turn over to someone we hardly knew.  As was pointed out to me, Hannah had come to a form of peace with what she thought was her loss, so the revealing of the truth didn't free her.  It made her more miserable. 

It made Isabel borderline psychotic.

It didn't alleviate Tom's guilt.

What a lousy story when you think of it.

What was wrong with having Lucy discover the truth long when she was an adult and could decide whether to contact her real family or not?  What was the point of tearing apart this loving family if Tom never came across as someone wracked with guilt over Hannah? 

I know what The Light Between Oceans was going for.  The fact that it fails is more a result of Cianfrance's need to force the 'romance', the 'tragedy', the 'lushness' than letting them flow naturally.  Ultimately, it would not have surprised me if either Tom or Isabel said softly, "Every Little Breeze Seems to Whisper Lucy..."


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