It’s fitting that a large part of The Light Between Oceans takes place in a lighthouse. From a distance, a lighthouse can be something worthwhile. Up close, where one can be examined, though? A lighthouse doesn’t seem quite so engaging. That’s the ultimate problem with The Light Between Oceans, which features gorgeous visuals and strong performances, but finds itself lacking in some crucial areas.
Tom (Michael Fassbender) is looking for a way to move past World War I when he agrees to temporarily serve as a lighthouse keeper, isolated for a few months from the rest of the world. When the position becomes more permanent, though, he begins to form a relationship with Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who proposes marriage to him so she can see where he stays. Their marriage starts promisingly, but is threatened by multiple miscarriages. After a boat washes ashore with a dead man’s body and a live baby, the couple decide to raise the child as their own. Years later, though, an encounter with a woman (Rachel Weisz) on the mainland will throw their lives into chaos.
Aesthetically, The Light Between Oceans feels like a throwback to the Miramax films of the 1990s, when they seemed to propel a different period piece into the Oscar race every year. It’s a gorgeous film that captures the beauty of Australia’s coast. The beauty helps mask the ugliness of what’s going on in the story, though.
Writer/director Derek Cianfrance, who previously helmed Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, knows his way around fraught relationships, and while the surface suggests something calmer, the relationship between Tom and Isabel shows some occasionally similar signs of danger. Unfortunately, this is conveyed more through Fassbender and Vikander as performers than by the script, which doesn’t really develop either character all that well.
Ultimately, The Light Between Oceans is a bit frustrating. It’s not a bad film, but it feels like less than the sum of its various parts. It’s hard to argue with any individual choice made here (except, again, maybe developing the characters a bit more should’ve been a priority), but it still left me wanting more.