It’s always difficult to pinpoint just where such a well-made movie as Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans falls short—why the hammer narrowly misses the nail and lands soundly on the thumb instead. The Light Between Oceans gives us everything we could ask for in a high-drama period romance, except for some spoon-fed melodrama that numbs the movie. It’s a shame, since Light’s complex content promised us so much more.
So many ingredients, though, were in just the right measure. The Light Between Oceans is a visually-stunning production, with plays of light through various sunsets and crashing waves and twirling lighthouse beams. It’s all gracefully and masterfully captured. But it’s an art in itself to peel words off the page—in this case, M.L. Stedman’s debut novel of the same name. The book, which came out in 2012, garnered comparisons to Thomas Hardy’s work from The Guardian, and collected an admirable round of accolades from various other reviewers. The book was, in other words, a solid jumping-off point. The film, though, didn’t dare to actually jump off, as it were. It was in itself too transparent to be convincing as its own rendition of the story: it looks and sounds like a book on screen.
The story follows Tom Sherbourne, played by Michael Fassbender, the shell-shocked and taciturn Australian WWI veteran looking to escape post-war life. Tom accepts a solitary job as lighthouse keeper off the coast of Western Australia, but that solitude quickly gives way to matrimony, as he falls for the infatuated, adventurous Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who runs at top speed on high confidence and a youthful brand of optimism. The Hallmark beauty of their life together quickly and dramatically dissolves, as Isabel suffers miscarriage after miscarriage. In a bald twist of fate, the couple discovers a rowboat washed up to shore, with a dead man and a distraught infant girl marooned inside. Isabel, bereft and desperate for motherhood, leaps at her chance: she convinces Tom to take the child in as their own, and to bury the dead man in secret on the island.
Parenthood proves as genial and idyllic as the couple could hope, the baby treasured without reservation by Isabel’s family on the mainland, where the child, now Lucy, is christened at the town church. But bringing the plot into roaring conflict, Tom, in the church yard for his daughter’s christening, spots a bereaved woman, Hannah (played by Rachel Weisz), mourning at one of the tombstones outside the church. Through a very brief bit of detective work, Tom discovers it is in fact Hannah’s daughter he is raising and Hannah’s husband he buried in secret.
The movie has the beauty of its cinematography on its side, as well as the interpersonal intrigue of the novel. The Light Between Oceans should have had immense momentum with which to propel itself forward. Instead, it tottered, trampling on the toes of the novel. There are innumerable, successful adaptations from page to screen, and some of those are as faithful to the original text as The Light Between Oceans. Consider last year’s knockout Room, reconstructed nearly line-by-line from Emma Donogue’s novel. Following closely in the footsteps of a book isn’t in itself a pitfall in the least: a degree of faithfulness to the text is vital. That’s what makes it an adaptation, after all.
But the dialogue of The Light Between Oceans shows where too much faith in your source material can leave even a beautifully-filmed and well-cast movie when the movie positions itself to recreate, rather than to interpret, its base text.
The first extended onscreen conversation is Tom and Isabel’s one and only formal date, initiated by Isabel on the spur of the moment during an awkward lull at her family’s dinner table. In their conversation on the cliffs overlooking the titular oceans—Pacific and Indian—Tom and Isabel trade big life questions: It’s the kind of stiff economy-of-words talk that you can envision playing beautifully down a page. But on screen, its impact withers. “Life,” says Tom, “that’ll do me, I reckon.”
On the page, the sentence works. On the screen, it feels as if someone has taken an X-Acto knife and sliced the printed words into a script. It’s a spare, small, direct screenplay, and much of its dialogue works entirely in service of the plot. An idle conversation like the cliff-side romance is rare. And its clumsiness is all the more telling.
The movie delivers what it wants to deliver: it is a beautifully made and complicated period romance, in which we see high emotions and moral questions and the difficult resolution of difficult interpersonal tensions. It isn’t quite genre romance: we don’t know the ending at the outset, and the plot, as it rattles on, produces more than a superficial sense of suspense. So The Light Between Oceans finds itself on a curious middle ground: it adopts just enough genre elements to feel like a pastel-soft romance, but its premise doesn’t allow it to fall under the easy romance heading. It is this more elevated, anti-genre element that ironically makes the film feel as if it’s fallen definitively short. The movie is just too straightforward, just too utilitarian to be convincing as a drama. It relies on trope romance moments—although very well-acted—which do not transcend what we would expect from a period romantic drama like Becoming Jane or Bright Star, where the movie really wanted to be more like Atonement or The Age of Innocence.