Blu-ray Review: The Light Between Oceans (2016)

By Greg Ehrbar.

Michael Fassbender has become especially adept at characters with steely reserve. Whether they’re electronic or human, they are never robotic but they are composed of an alloy that allows the actor to create tense, internalized, restrained characters. Director Derek Cianfrance, in the fascinating audio commentary (thank you!), often comments on his quests to get to the heart of the character and the artist portraying him.

In classic gothic romantic tradition, it takes love to bring out his soul. The Light Between Oceans has a period setting but is not a “retro” film, but it could have been a Jane Wyman tearjerker in the late ’40s. In fact, filmmaker Phil Solomon—who co-hosts the commentary with Cianfrance—compares Fassbender with the comparably granite-jawed Burt Lancaster.

Though Cianfrance’s intent was to mute the HD aspects of the digital photography for dramatic effect, the authentic New Zealand locations are stunning. Cianfrance took full advantage of the stark remote lighthouse island to encourage the actors to “live” in the setting, allowing some wonderful moments to come organically from Fassbender and co-star Alicia Vikander.

The story adaptation leans too frequently into soap opera, with several coincidental twists that feel intended for cause and effect rather than believable logic. When Fassbender’s character looks at the gravestone of the late husband of Rachel Weisz’s character, it actually says ”Dearly beloved husband of Hannah, and their precious daughter, Grace Ellen.” I’m sorry, but if this were a vintage Warner Brothers cartoon, Daffy Duck would have popped up from behind the stone and said, “Hey! How much you wanna bet that’s the kid you’ve been keepin’ for yourself, buster?”

Some of the dialogue is covered by atmospheric sounds (the director’s creative choice). The advantage of having the disc is the ability to reverse and relisten. There are two short documentaries, one about the lighthouse itself, and another about how the actors and the director deepened their approach to their performances through the setting.

As a Blu-ray package, The Light Between Oceans offers three separate love stories. Two of them are in the movie (between Fassbender and Vikander and also that of Rachel Weisz’s character with her late husband). The other is on the commentary track with Cianfrance and Solomon, who are former professor and student. It has to be such a milestone in a teacher’s life to see a student excel and so satisfying for that student to be able to share that success with a mentor. The warmth, “in” jokes and even gentle sparks of conflict between the two is a rare experience and well worth a listen.

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