Who’s to say what drew writer-director Derek Cianfrance to adapt M.L. Stedman’s novel The Light Between Oceans? But seeing it provides a clue. It’s another of his bifurcated narratives with unsettled loyalties and split focus. Like his Blue Valentine – a scrambled romance told from the time of flirtation and the point of breakup, from the perspective of a man and of a woman – and The Place Beyond the Pines – the story of a criminal that takes a sudden swerve into the story of the cop who shoots him – this new picture has more than one perspective on its narrative. It begins as the story of a World War I vet who takes a job at a lighthouse, enjoying the isolation until he decides to marry a young woman he’s fallen in love with over correspondence. They want to start a family, but find it difficult. Eventually, tragedy strikes, dubious decisions are made, and then they move along like nothing’s wrong. That’s when Cianfrance threads in a third character’s story, a woman profoundly hurt by this couple’s actions, unbeknownst to all involved. As her story crosses theirs, the melodrama is whipped up into a troubling tangle of ethical quandaries.
Handsomely photographed and assembled, this is the sort of glossy, high-toned, languidly serious-minded melodrama that some will feel obliged to give a pass on the grounds of “they don’t make them like this anymore.” (Never mind that “they” and “like this” and “anymore” are nebulous and fallacious terms at best, you get what those folks are saying.) Indeed, this gauzy movie will tickle the pleasure centers of anyone inclined to swoon with so beautifully mounted a production. Thankfully, Oceans is a little better than its mere surface merits, even if it errs on the side of slowly playing out conclusions that are flatter or more predictable than it thinks. Cianfrance has cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (True Detective) make every hour Magic Hour, drenching the frames in beaming sun and winds whipping over the ocean artfully tousling hair and wardrobe. It has all the signifiers of a romance – like a more high-minded Nicholas Sparks movie – with two attractive leads – Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander – falling in love against a gorgeous natural setting. And yet there’s a sneaky sadness that creeps in around the edges, flowering when the consequences of their actions take psychological bloom.
Fassbender plays the leading man as a taciturn, slowly thawing vet wounded deeply by the travails of trench warfare and a nagging, gnawing case of survivor’s guilt. That he falls in love with Vikander’s sweet villager is no surprise. The camera loves her, and she’s at ease in front of it. There’s a tastefully shot honeymoon sequence that lets the camera wander into the lighthouse with her, then takes on Fassbender’s gaze as it slowly creeps around a doorframe to the bedroom in which she stands making smoldering eyes at the camera (which is to say Fassbender and, by proxy, us). Cianfrance gives them the space to sell seduction as a means by which two lonely people marked by the tragedy of their time find comfort together, and with the promise of making a new family out of their love. It’s a cinematic idea that movies might as well have been made for, to watch two people fall in love, and pin their hopes on one another, while the orchestra swells and the camera captures everything in soft montages of pale light-filled images.
But the sadness in their eyes is only dulled for a spell, returning as they discover they can’t conceive. This charged emotion leads to their decision to keep a baby they find floating with a man’s corpse in a rowboat. They tell no one about this event, choosing instead to view this as a gift from God. A haunting moment reveals the lost child. Vikander is sprawled out on the graves of her miscarried pregnancies, her ear to the ground as the sound of a crying infant floats over the howling wind and roaring surf. Later, after Fassbender has been convinced to bury the body and telegraph into town that his wife has given birth, he pries the white cross headstone out of his stillborn child’s grave. One grief’s marker is traded for the emptiness signifying the other. Cianfrance will occasionally underline or overemphasize the emotion of the moment, but in sequences like those there are memorable and lingering effects.
This is powerful material, adding underlying sorrow and suspense to scenes of the baby growing older, amplified when the complicating melodrama really kicks in, revealing the identity of the mother (Rachel Weisz) who assumes her only child has been lost at sea. Flashbacks paint in her backstory with fine economy. Cianfrance plays it straight, allowing us to imbibe the full dramatic ironies of the situation in such a way that refuses easy rooting interest or audience identification. The moral dilemma makes it impossible to have an easy understanding of where the story should go, or even who is in the right as the plotlines inevitably converge, creating only more heartache and confusion the longer it goes. Who deserves happiness? Who deserves forgiveness? The movie is so lush, it’s almost a clash with the harshness in the shocks of its melancholy bouts of understanding and even, improbably, mercy. Great actors do their best to make slightly plausible plot turns into something approaching humanity, while the filmmaking around them contains them in a cinematic tradition of beautiful suffering and picturesque romantic tragedy.