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MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: A 2016 morality tale about guilt and redemption in marriage.
MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: In The Light Between Oceans, available for rent on Amazon and iTunes, director Derek Cianfrance clearly owes something to the deeply Christian work of Hidden Life director Terrence Malick. He favors wide, contemplative shots of wind rustling through grass and dark clouds gathering over stormy seas. We also see plenty of tight shots focused on the tiny tics of facial expression that reveal restrained joy and suffering within.
CLIP: I understand you’re a single man. No family. So that’s a slight concern. Wouldn’t normally send a single man to Janus. It’s pretty remote. A wife and family can be a great practical help not just a comfort. But seeing as it’s only temporary. You’ll leave for Port Partageuse in two days.
It’s beautiful work, filmed off the rugged Australian coast and set just after World War I. But unlike Malick’s sometimes vague collection of poetic images strung together as story, Cianfrance is working here with a strong, clear plot that offers a crackerjack story of grand, historical tragedy. Adapted from the best-selling novel by M.L. Stedman, it’s a stirring, emotional story for viewers willing to hang on through the indulgent, lingering moments.
Some of those scenes are necessary to give a modern audience time to reframe their thinking. That makes it easier to empathize with Isabel, a sweet, 19-year-old girl, whose dearest ambition is to care for babies and a home with a man she loves.
CLIP: You think you’re up for it. Oh please. The last thing the poor man needs are your tales of doom and gloom. Told you she’d turn up. This is Isabel Graysmark. Isabel, meet Mr. Sherbourne. Pleasure to meet you Mr. Sherbourne. Ms. Graysmark.
Brilliantly played by Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, Isabel’s desires are so fundamentally motherly, they cast a bit of an uncomfortable glare on 21st-century priorities. Her mindset couldn’t be more different from today’s families where children are often viewed as the capping accessory to successful careers.
The answer to Isabel’s fantasies arrives in the form of Tom, a fantastic Michael Fassbender. He’s a stoic and psychologically scarred veteran who takes a job keeping the lighthouse on an island just a short boat ride from Isabel’s small town.
CLIP: Take me out to Janus with you. What? I want to see it. I want to see where you hide yourself away. I’m afraid that would be against Commonwealth rules. The only woman allowed on Janus is the keeper’s wife. Then marry me.
As with Isabel, it may be hard for some postmodern viewers to see the world through Tom’s eyes. He believes that, as a husband, his obligations to his wife are distinct from hers to him. It colors everything about the way he relates to her, particularly when they’re tested by her inability to have a child.
One late-term miscarriage follows another. As a despairing Isabel lies down on her babies’ graves, all clinical posturing that she’s mourning nonentities dissolves. Her grief makes her later decision to claim a foundling infant as her own more understandable.
CLIP: She’s a lovely baby, but she doesn’t belong to us. We can’t keep her. Why not? Who’s to know she’s here? When Ralph and Bluey get here in a few weeks they’ll know for a start. No one will know she’s not ours. They all think I’m expecting. They’ll just be surprised she arrived early. What about the dead man in the boat.
A kind of Adam figure, Tom allows his affection for Isabel to overrule his good judgment with disastrous consequences. It’s clear his later sense of failure comes not from simplistic chivalry, but from an understanding that he failed in his role to lead his family.
CLIP: You saw what we’ve done to her. We can’t let it go on. We can’t do it anymore. We have to do what’s right. We have to do what’s right for Lucy. Not for you, not for me, not for some stranger. But for Lucy. It’s her mother. I’m her mother.
The movie travels through some tense, painful ground when the infant’s real mother is revealed. But through it all honors the sacredness of marriage with an honesty and rawness few films today manage.
CLIP: I have loved you as best I know, Isabel. Which isn’t saying much. You deserved someone a lot better than me. All I can do is ask God and ask you to forgive me for the harm I’ve caused. And thank you for every day we spent together. I’ll always be your loving husband, Tom.
That said, Cianfrance could have trimmed some of Tom and Isabel’s early courting scenes, including a wedding night sex scene. There’s no nudity and it’s more awkward than anything but it accounts for the PG-13 rating. This would have made more room for the film’s finale, which, while emotionally satisfying, feels rushed. I would have loved to see what a director with a more straightforward narrative style, like Steven Spielberg or Ridley Scott, might have done with the story.
Still, The Light Between Oceans is the rare film that understands that husbands and wives are not just interchangeable partners. The moral questions and consequences it examines are ageless. Its themes of forgiveness and faithfulness, eternal.
I’m Megan Basham.