There are no battle scenes in Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans,” but it is undoubtedly a war movie. One need not see the dispiriting, demoralizing trenches of World War I when their effects are so clearly visible in the blank expression of Michael Fassbender’s Tom Sherbourne. All vestiges of his personality must reside permanently buried in some European forest because shell shock has left a shell of a man, one so eager to extricate himself from human contact that he volunteers for a solitary position tending to a lighthouse off the Australian coast.
Tom’s isolated assignment recalls the kind of lonely confinement afforded Jack Torrance in “The Shining.” While he might not suffer a psychotic break or murderous episode, the location exacts a toll in its own, quiet way. In the wake of the Great War’s devastation, Tom attempts to maintain the mirage of a moral universe by upholding order on the smallest possible scale. “The Light Between Oceans” never uses the oft-elided interwar period to foreshadow the next looming conflict, a decision that lends weight to his inner agony.
Alone, Tom’s illusion seems faintly sustainable. The notion begins to crumble, however, when his sorrow gives way to genuine affection for Alicia Vikander’s Isabel Graysmark. Their flirtations begin with only the faintest of sparks, and they do not generate any more heat in the bedroom. That’s on purpose – for Tom, physical intimacy is something he approaches with trepidation since the last bodies he came into contact with were likely dead ones.
Isabel wants a baby, yet several failed pregnancies make the prospect seem implausible. Their thwarted attempts at birth feel quite reflective of the post-war Western world, trying to create a brighter future but stillborn efforts contribute to a growing sense of dread that life will never bloom again.
Then, almost like a deus ex machina, an infant (along with her dead father) washes up along the banks of their island. It’s no wonder Cianfrance adapted “The Light Between Oceans” from M.L. Stedman’s novel as the key plot development plays right into his penchant for fraught families wrenched by a cruel twist of fate. Isabel’s desire to parade the baby about as her own, in an attempt to provide personal justice for her two miscarriages, butts heads with Tom’s steadfast commitment to upholding the rules that safeguard society. Pleasing his wife ultimately vanquishes his plans for a return to modest normalcy.
The film is full of gorgeous vistas from cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, but they ring as hollow as a desktop screensaver. In this land of plenty lies a country of little, depleted of moral fortitude and doubting even the most basic assumptions about human decency. Their plan does not go off without a hitch, of course; the identity of the real mother, Rachel Weisz’s Hannah Roennfeldt, makes itself known to Tom. The internal tussle is every bit as thunderous as Fassbender’s showier roles in films like “Hunger” and “Shame,” but the actor resists every urge to reflect it physically in “The Light Between Oceans.” Instead, with his eyes wide open and his lips slightly pursed, he registers major developments by only letting the most minuscule movements telegraph his racing mind.
Francois Truffaut once famously said that there is no such thing as an anti-war film. Any time you point a camera at even a fictionalized representation of battle, he argued, the conflict becomes aestheticized. Roger Ebert wrote in 1986 that he wished the late French iconoclast could have lived to see “Platoon” because it might have modified his opinion. Thirty years later, I must say that I wish Truffaut could have seen “The Light Between Oceans.” World War I posed existential crises for the world in the early 1920s as it showed the worst that modernity could wreak on humanity. Seldom has this anguish been more lucidly expressed than in the eyes of Fassbender’s Tom – so present, yet also so empty. B+ /