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The Light Between Oceans

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Released 2016. Director: Derek Cianfrance

JUST AFTER WORLD WAR ONE, TOM SHERBOURNE, a war-weary veteran accepts a posting as a lighthouse keeper on a small remote island off the coast of Australia. It’s a perfect job that suits a withdrawn man of few words who seems eternally sad.

Tom is a dutiful and responsible man. He keeps the lighthouse in order. He chops wood, tends his garden, stares at the sea and thinks about the local girl he’s met on the coast named Isabel. A couple of years and a short courtship later they get married. Actually, it’s more accurate to say Isabel proposes. When Isabel asks Tom to show her the lighthouse and Tom replies it’s against the law as the only woman allowed is the keeper’s wife, she says simply: “Then marry me.”

Derek Cianfrance’s adaptation of the novel by M.L. Stedman is a tragic romance that expertly plucks at the strings of your heart. The wide, wind-swept vista of Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography; the lush, melancholic orchestration of Alexandre Desplat’s music; the steady, anticipatory blossoming of the couple’s relationship all lead to a destination you can feel coming and when it does, it washes over you like a rising tide.

Tom and Isabel have found a piece of paradise, a small house on an island away from everyone else but their marital bliss is cruelly shattered when Isabel suffers two horrific miscarriages over the years. Isabel, once a happy young woman with a permanent smile, turns depressed and unfulfilled.

As if a prayer has been answered, a rowboat washes ashore one day with a dead man in whose arms is a baby girl. Tom prepares to report the incident but Isabel worries that the authorities will send the baby to an orphanage and pleads with her husband to keep the baby as theirs. Torn between duty and his wife, the man chooses to break the law.

Keeping the truth from everyone including Isabel’s parents, the couple raise the baby they name Lucy. Loving and devoted parents, a happy child, an idyllic life, the family is complete. A few years pass and Tom learns their happiness comes at the expense of a grieving widow and sets about to redress the wrong, which leads eventually to Lucy being forcibly returned to her birth mother Hannah.

This is a story about people who are capable of loving too deeply. Tom loves Isabel too much that he goes against his own convictions. He is prepared to shoulder the full blame to spare Isabel when the law catches on, remembering his wife’s anguish after losing two unborn babies. Isabel pours her love into raising this miracle infant delivered to her door whose arrival is the beginning of her own healing. Hannah, whose love for a German man in a town that views him as an enemy costs him his life, is determined to hold on to her daughter she thought she’s also lost.

The movie gives time to all three principal characters and considers their voices. We see and feel their distress as they navigate a tormenting situation with an innocent young child in the midst. How could loving someone with all your heart lead to criminal punishment?

This is a classy period drama bolstered by strong, nuanced performances. Alicia Vikander (as Isabel) and Rachel Weisz (as Hannah) play two women connected by an incredible case of baby-stealing/baby-rescue, their maternity and protectiveness suffuse all their actions. It’s impossible not to feel for Isabel’s emotional ordeal whilst Hannah is dignified in her quiet desperation. The real stand-out is Michael Fassbender as Tom, a man coming out of war trauma and finds happiness as a husband and father. His conscience, however, remains a haunting shadow and Tom’s struggle with doing the right thing is almost viscerally tangible. Recognised mostly for his work in the X-Men and Alien movies, Michael Fassbender is an under-appreciated talent still waiting to stamp his mark in epic romances.

The Light Between Oceans will appeal to you if you like dramas about love and loss, good people who find themselves on the wrong end of the law to fill a space in their heart. If you find your vision a little misty at the end, blame it on sand in your eye.

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