'The Light Between Oceans' frames heart-wrenching drama with incredible scenery

Posted September 4, 2016

“THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS” — 3½ stars — Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz; PG-13 (thematic material and some sexual content); in general release

You could forgive audiences for thinking “The Light Between Oceans” is a sweeping romance.

Based on the novel of the same title by M.L. Stedman, director Derek Cianfrance’s gorgeous film spends its entire first act hammering out the conflict-free love story of the film’s two protagonists as they start an idyllic life together on a remote island off the coast of Western Australia.

Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is a veteran of World War I, recently returned and looking to get away from pretty much everything. He takes a job manning a lighthouse on an island called Janus while the previous tenant recovers from a bout of cabin fever, then eventually takes over permanently and marries a young woman named Isabel (Alicia Vikander) from the mainland.

Everything looks like sunshine and roses for the happy couple a half-hour into the film, and Isabel is pregnant right around the time a good review stops summarizing the plot. But the central conflict of “Light Between Oceans” takes a little while longer to develop. Tom and Isabel suffer through a pair of miscarriages that keep them childless, then almost out of nowhere, a newborn washes up on shore in a rowboat with her dead father.

Tom’s instinct is to report the baby’s arrival to shore and hope he and Isabel are allowed to adopt the child. But Isabel persuades him to take a less ethical approach to the matter, which proves troublesome once they realize the baby’s natural mother Hannah (Rachel Weisz) is still alive and mourning the loss of her family on the mainland.

The dramatic turn of events steers “Light Between Oceans” from an idyllic romance into a heart-wrenching drama and finally into a treatise on the meaning and depth of true love. A lesser story in lesser hands might have been crushed beneath its own preposterous weight, but Cianfrance manages to keep control of the narrative in a way that allows the film to build in its intensity without spinning out of control.

“Light Between Oceans” is also one of the most uniquely beautiful films in recent memory, and well worth taking in on a big screen. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw desaturates the film’s color just enough to remind you that its events are taking place a hundred years ago, but even though his sweeping visuals never quite look like the scenes you’d expect to find on a postcard, Arkapaw captures the remote and lonely beauty of the coastal landscape in a way that feels worth the ticket price on its own.

Fassbender and Vikander are both powerful in their roles, and even in a comparatively small amount of screen time, Weisz is commanding as the lost baby’s natural mother. It is heartbreaking to consider Hannah’s perspective, and a late confrontation with Isabel is especially moving.

“The Light Between Oceans” isn’t exactly the kind of film to leave you with warm fuzzies. It’s well-acted and gorgeous to watch, but the film’s greatest accomplishment may be the way it starts off with a shallow kind of Hollywood romance and converts it into something much more deep and meaningful.

“The Light Between the Oceans” is rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sexual content; running time: 132 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at


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