I really wanted to hate The Light Between Oceans. But, the truth is, I can’t — at least not entirely. Instead, my assessment is decidedly lukewarm, which may be worse. Sure, it’s a self-important piece of award-bait that plays like a parody of such for the first 20 minutes of its abusively long 132-minute running time. And, sure, it looks like it was shot by the love child of Théodore Géricault and Winslow Homer. It’s beautiful to look at. It’s also partially redeemed by some of the best performances I’ve seen out of Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, as well as a heart-wrenching story that skirts moral ambiguity more deftly than most. The tricky thing about Oceans is that it somehow manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and deliver a film less than the sum of its parts.
Adapted from the best-selling 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans is an overwrought melodrama that falls prey to the unfortunately common misstep of trying to cram an entire novel into a feature-length film. The art of adaptation is in proportionality, meaning that the essence of the story has to be distilled from a much larger whole into something succinct enough to get its point across inside of two hours (ideally). Successful literary adaptation is also contingent on an understanding of the distinction between what works on the page and what works on the screen. On both counts, The Light Between Oceans is a failed adaptation. It lingers on extraneous plot points and manages to be both expositorily blunt and painfully long-winded. Its premise provides plenty of fodder for compelling drama, but the story falls flat in execution. In short, without having read the novel, I feel safe in asserting that audiences would be better served by the book than the film — that is, if one can be at all well-served by excessively weepy period-pieces without much of a point.
Blame for the inadequacies of The Light Between Oceans can almost certainly be laid at the feet of writer-director Derek Cianfrance, partly because he willfully chose this sappy, soap opera source material and partly because he lacked the discretion to trim it more efficaciously. But the biggest problem with the script (and presumably the underlying story) is that every significant turn in the plot is distinguished by an explicitly deus ex machina quality. If you look too closely at any of the threads, the overall effect of the tapestry is lost, and this is because very few of the characters’ decisions make much sense. You can only call forth a god from the machine so many times before the mechanism becomes worn and obvious, and Cianfrance more than maxed out his allowance by the 90-minute mark, a point at which a more courteous filmmaker would be starting to wrap things up. Instead, we’re treated to another 45 minutes of improbable turns and inexplicable character choices.
All that said, The Light Between Oceans certainly has a few strengths in its favor and a demographic to which it will likely appeal. Vikander and Fassbender are both excellent (if a little stilted in their delivery of some truly ridiculous dialogue). Their chemistry is affable and enviable enough that it’s no real surprise they became an item while on set. And, if you find yourself in that specific subset of society that believes babies are the most precious thing on God’s green earth, you might find the character motivations less vexing and perplexing than I did. But, when all’s said and done, Cianfrance has delivered something that might best be referred to (with some charitable derision) as a “Merchant Marine Ivory” production — with little to recommend it beyond some striking cinematography and a first-rate central cast. Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sexual content .
Now playing at Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, UA Beaucatcher, Epic of Hendersonville.