Light Between Oceans is the latest film from director Derek Cianfrance, who previously made one of the greatest films of the decade, Blue Valentine. He followed it up with The Place Beyond the Pines, a crime drama that somehow managed to contain an epic scope with a contained narrative and Schenectady location. Although Cianfrance’s background was in documentary film, it isn’t really isn’t on show in his features beyond his use of long takes.
His latest feature is based on a best-selling book. The film has had a mixed reception. It’s an old-fashioned film, set in the 1920s and strong on storytelling. It’s set in Australia, although it doesn’t use iconic Australian locations so that isn’t immediately obvious. Tom (Michael Fassbender) is suffering from PTSD after World War I, and takes a job looking after a remote lighthouse. He falls in love with a local girl, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), and she moved to the lighthouse island with him. After two miscarriages, a boat carrying a dead man and a newborn baby appears—and they decide to keep the baby.
Fassbender’s character wants to do the right thing, but he soon figures out whose baby is was—a woman from a neighbouring town, Hannah, played by Rachel Weiss. Conflicted, he begins writing her somewhat cryptic letters.
The film had been in development for awhile—Cianfrance was hired by Spielberg (not credited) to take the project on for Dreamworks on the strength of Blue Valentine. Although shooting was completed in late November 2014, it took the director a year of working with the editors to come up with the finished product. The result may be a bit over-edited.
Given the setting and story, it is a real departure from Cianfrance’s more modern previous style. It’s beautifully photographed, with long takes and wonderful shots. The performances are great, with Fassbender as strong as ever (but then, he was able to portray Steve Jobs convincingly despite not resembling him at all). The depth of conflict between the characters is clear on his face in a way that is absolutely believable. Vikander and Weiss have more showy roles with external conflicts, and they also inhabit their parts well.
Although some critics found the film overly melodramatic, given the story that style is suitable for the situation. One could imagine Spielberg directing it, and no doubt that would have also been a good film, but bringing in a director who doesn’t usually do this kind of film added something. His shots of the sea, lighthouse and landscapes (shot in stunning areas of New Zealand and Australia) really create a sense of place.
This disc includes a commentary with the director and film professor Philip Solomon, and over 20 minutes of featurettes.