In his relatively short but impressive career to date, writer and director Derek Cianfrance has intelligently toyed with narrative conventions, playing with linear structure to get the desired effect from his tales of family, love and loss. He ventures into the period drama genre for his latest feature The Light Between Oceans, adapting M.L. Stedman’s novel of the same name for the screen. Set in Western Australia shortly after World War I, veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) has posttraumatic stress disorder due to the loss he has experienced. As a coping mechanism he takes up a post as a lighthouse keeper to remove himself from civilisation. When he meets his new boss’s daughter Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), the pair fall in love and get married. They face a dilemma when a dead man and a newborn baby wash up on the shore in an old rowboat. Desperate to start a family together and in mourning after suffering two miscarriages, the couple make a perilous choice that changes their lives forever.
Time is carefully spent in the opening hour or so to flesh out the central characters and their backgrounds, developing their blossoming relationship and emotioneering for what is to follow as the plot furthers. It has an appealing old fashioned tone that compliments the material and as a romance at the beginning it really works. Fassbender and Vikander began dating after meeting on set and the evident bond they share comes across beautifully on the screen. However, problems arise when events go wrong for Thomas and Isabel. The heartache they encounter feels very rushed and heavy-handed pacing takes hold of the narrative when things go from bad to worse for the lovers. It is as though the film is too self-conscious of how upsetting the subject matter is to the point that is feels like the director is wringing every last tear out of the audience in an attempt to hammer home how sad it all is. Admittedly, there are a couple of genuinely heart-wrenching moments which are handled impeccably by a faultless cast.
The Light Between Oceans may lack the lasting emotional impact of Cianfrance’s previous works, but it illustrates his skill for telling thought-provoking, intimate stories that explore far-reaching ideas. Fassbender and Vikander manage to give great depth to their difficult roles whilst both mastering the overdone single-tear-close-up, effectively portraying Thomas and Isabel as good people that do something very bad, but for reasons that feel right to them in that specific moment. Cianfrance successfully tugs and pulls at heartstrings as puppet master of the most orchestrated yet cleverly executed weepie of the year.