Based on M.L. Stedman’s best-selling novel, The Light Between Oceans is mesmerizing, at first. It is a physically beautiful production with a fable-like quality. The story takes place in the years following World War I. There is a scene of the main character walking along a railway platform surrounded by men with crutches and missing limbs, yet it turns out to be the only visual reminder of the period. The quaint seaside town where the characters live could be anywhere, anytime. (There is also little evidence that the setting is Australia since there are such a variety of dialects, or lack of them, amongst the cast).
Michael Fassbender, sporting a brush mustache, fully embodies the part of a soldier who’s seen too much, with his quiet manner and stiff body language. When he meets Alicia Vikander she is so full of life (exuding a happiness she’s seldom shown on screen before) you understand why he’s captivated by her.
She agrees to join him when he accepts a job as a lighthouse keeper on the isolated Janus Rock. Their idyllic life is dotted by tragedy and then the hope of happiness, given to them by the sheerest of coincidences.
As far-fetched as this turn of events may be, the film remains on course emotionally; that is its strength. But the narrative becomes conventional and schematic, which is not what I expect from Derek Cianfrance, who gave us Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. The pace slows as the story progresses and plays out its soap-opera plot, involving a third key character, Rachel Weisz.
The atmosphere is rich, and the cast is good, including the always-welcome Jack Thompson as an old salt who befriends Fassbender. But there is another lingering problem: the sound mix is such that the roar of the ocean drowns out much of the intimate dialogue between the two leading actors. I had to strain to hear what they’re saying, What’s the point of that?
It is clear that everyone approached this endeavor with good intentions, which makes the results all the more disappointing.