“Titanic,” “The Notebook,” even “The Fault in Our Stars:” these films all end in a familiar sob-induced migraine and salt-crusted cheeks. “The Light Between Oceans” is a newcomer to the genre of heart-wrenching dramas of love and loss. But this film offers more artistry and more complexity than any of its predecessors, making it a masterful piece of art and a must-see for those seeking emotional release.
“The Light Between Oceans” is the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife, who rescue and keep a baby that washes up on their island shore, purposefully choosing not to look into the baby’s original home. After five years of familial bliss, the couple is forced by guilt and circumstance to come to terms with reality and face the true, grieving mother of their child.
The film is a breathtaking piece of artwork. Comprised heavily of still landscape shots taken off the coast of Western Australia, each scene looks like an oil painting, with soft colors that melt together in smooth compositions. The result is a collection of shots that create a gorgeous, pastoral landscape of the lighthouse island, one that is both serene and lonely. As a movie about a lighthouse keeper, light itself is a major element of the film’s cinematography. Director Derek Cianfrance (“The Place Beyond the Pines”) masterfully manipulates natural light to add a delicate, dreamy effect to every scene. The light is both soft and pervasive, enhancing the physical and emotional aspects of the characters in subtle but powerful ways.
Also an active agent in the film’s success, the score is a moving collection of sweeping piano pieces that intensify the emotions of the characters. Composed by Alexandre Desplat, it’s no surprise that the score is incredible — Desplat is a master composer, with a repertoire that includes “The Imitation Game,” “The King’s Speech” and “The Danish Girl,” among others. The entire artistic effect is one of intense beauty and intense solitude.
The acting is also spectacular, as one would expect with a trio of Academy Award winners and nominees. Playing the leading couple, Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”) and Michael Fassbender (“Steve Jobs”) prove once again that they are masters of their class. Both deliver powerful performances through subtlety of emotion, moving mountains with a single change in expression. The pair act across a vast emotional spectrum, moving through new love to shattering loss to choking guilt. Their chemistry is palpable due to their bottomless talent and is perhaps enhanced by the fact that they’re dating in real life (God bless this world).
Rachel Weisz (“Youth”) also delivers a genuine and heartfelt performance of a mother grieving for her lost daughter. With skill, Weisz portrays an understandable desire to get her daughter back that shifts to a heartbreaking confusion over what lies in her daughter’s best interest. Both Vikander and Weisz delve into the complex and layered emotions of motherhood, dealing with the devastating effects of miscarriage, grief and the salvation a child can bring or the destruction it can leave in its absence. The women work not as opposites or enemies, but as mothers with vastly different, yet strikingly similar perspectives.
The complexity in “The Light Between Oceans” lies in the absence of an antagonist. Each character must work through their own conflicting desires and senses of morality in a difficult and painful struggle for happiness and fulfillment. The film is about selfishness and the unintended consequences that come from following one’s desires, yet it also showcases the power of love that binds people together in unbreakable ways. This movie will make you heave with heart-wrenching sobs for a solid two hours in an agonizing but ultimately liberating experience, which is all one can really ask for.