133 min. | PG-13
Happily married newlyweds live in isolation on an island. They desperately want to start a family, but repeated miscarriages make that impossible. One day, a boat with a dead man and a living baby washes ashore on your island, 100 miles from land. Do they keep the baby as their own, or alert the authorities and almost certainly lose the child?
Such is the dilemma faced by Tom (Michael Fassbender) and Isabel (Alicia Vikander) in The Light Between Oceans, a grand epic with a real conversation starter at its core. How it plays out is logical and heartbreaking, and it also feels truthful given the time (1920s) and place (Australia).
Fassbender and Vikander (who won an Oscar for The Danish Girl) are strong leads, in particular because their characters go through such a substantial transition. They meet, exchange love letters while Tom is working alone at a lighthouse, fall in love and marry. It’s not until after they’re married that they live together and really start to know one another. He’s a war veteran suffering from PTSD who’s numb to the world; she’s a sweet girl living in a town in which there are no other men her age (at least that we see). It’s a cliché, but beautiful when it really is true: They’re good for one another.
The idealism Tom and Isabel begin with is nicely balanced with the reality and heartache that follow. We like and feel for them, even if we don’t necessarily agree with their decision when the baby’s real mother (Rachel Weisz) enters the picture. Tom’s morality and honor, combined with Isabel’s pure maternal heart, make them a couple you’ll root for in spite of their actions.
The film is based on the novel by M.L. Stedman, and director Derek Cianfrance is determined to keep the scale of the story. While it’s admirable to feature many of the book’s best moments—the plethora of locals and plot points bloat the running time—the film feels long. It’s not unendurable, but when you have as many slow sequences as this film does it’s frustrating.
Yet movies that make you think and inspire conversation are rare these days, which is why The Light Between Oceans is noteworthy. It presents legitimate quandaries to which there’s not necessarily a right answer, and in doing so it poses questions many of us would have great difficulty answering. This is also a movie that has raw emotion, and as such is a touching experience that fans of large-scale dramas will not want to miss.