The harsh and unrelenting nature of the Australian landscape has served as terrific cinematic fodder from Walkabout (1971) to The Proposition (2005), but rarely has its isolation looked as pretty as it does in THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance leads an international co-production to bring M. L. Stedman’s 2012 novel to the screen, packing the same emotional immediacy that made Blue Valentine such a gut-punch. Yet unlike that earlier film’s naturalistic exploration of a strained relationship, the convoluted nature of this adaptation is a bitter pill to swallow.
Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a veteran of the Great War, arrives in a Western Australian coastal town to become the lighthouse keeper for Janus Rock. After falling in love with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), he marries her and they begin their life together in the isolated house. However, following two miscarriages and their declining hope for a baby of their own, an unexpected turn of events changes the course of their destiny, testing their morals and their marriage. Years later, when Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz) intersects with their lives, their blissful bubble threatens to burst.
THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is hard work. Like the tides and storms that batter the lighthouse, the central couple just have one thing after another thrown in their path. It’s almost oppressive how much they have to face, not to mention feeling like a series of convenient plot devices rather than a life lived on the literal edge. What essentially amounts to a musing on identity also struggles to find one of its own, with the stunning photography of Tasmania and New Zealand from Adam Arkapaw (Snowtown, True Detective) at a constant war with the overwrought narrative.
Despite being a Antipodean spin on the likes of Nicholas Sparks with weightier themes, the cast gives it their all. Both Fassbender and Vikander don period Australian accents, which is impressive enough given how notoriously easy it is to get wrong. Vikander steals every scene she is in, along with any babies that happen to be present, swinging between graceful innocence and obsessive anguish. Her counterpart in Weisz is just as complex, but less successful as a character given the script’s clear bias towards Vikander.
In some ways, THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is a throwback to the Australian output of the 1970s. It’s gorgeous to look at, filled with pretty costumes, hasn’t quite gotten over its European heritage, and features people who are notorious difficult to get close to. It also stars Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson and Garry McDonald if further evidence was needed. It’s hard to recommend it as a date night movie, but if you like your romances intensely melancholy, this might be the one for you.