There is no misfortune too shattering for Derek Cianfrance, it seems. The writer and director of "Blue Valentine," ''The Place Beyond the Pines," and now, an adaptation of the M.L. Stedman novel "The Light Between Oceans" confidently strides into stories of little hope and painful circumstance, using pretty actors and even prettier settings to create sweeping milieus of human devastation.
But where the dissolving marriage in "Blue Valentine" was so tangibly real that it felt as raw as a breakup, "The Light Between Oceans" crashes into the shores of its own strange story, pummeling the audience with Big Feelings that never quite cut through. Perhaps it's because it follows the characters down a morally murky path of increasingly poor choices where only one is given any depth after the original sin. But we'll get to that later.
"The Light Between Oceans" starts out as a handsome love story in a handsome place, even if dread looms in the angry seas and winds enveloping this picturesque seaside town. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender, looking rugged and war-weary) has just returned from service in World War I and takes a position as the caretaker of a lighthouse on a small island off the coast of Australia. He's warned that the last man in the job went a little crazy out there on his own, and everyone seems to think that it's just not a good idea to live on that island without a wife.
In any event, the stoic Tom finds a woman soon enough in Isabel (a luminous Alicia Vikander), who is forward and spirited enough to suggest a date with the shy newcomer. They fall fast and beautifully in love and take off for life on the island together, enraptured of one another in a newlywed daze.
Then Isabel starts to have problems carrying a child to term. She loses one early on, and then another quite a bit later in pregnancy. The second is the blow that threatens to destroy them, until they spot a rowboat drifting in the waters. Inside, there's a dead man and a wailing infant girl. You know where this is going.
After one night with the child, Isabel is a goner. She's fallen in love with this gift and like a stubborn child will not let go despite Tom's pleas (What about adoption? My professional obligation to log everything? The social contract to not steal babies?). But Tom, seeing the spark return to Isabel's haunted eyes, reluctantly caves.
And they start raising the little one as their own, sinking deeper into the lie until Tom realizes that the mother, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), lives heartbroken on the mainland. The human factor makes Tom's moral compass spin and it's here that the story really starts to lose itself quite simply because the other half of this equation is reduced to a one-note cliché.
As a mother, Isabel is no longer an individual, a sexual being, or even a supportive partner. She is just a gooey mess of motherly emotions and insanity. It's a shame, too. How often is the devastation of multiples miscarriages and stillbirths, an experience that so many women have, actually represented? Once the child arrives, it's no longer Isabel's story. Tom gets to be the protector of his childlike wife and the martyr for their choices. By the third act, I'm certain we're not supposed to be annoyed with everyone (actually, Isabel's parents are OK).
"The Light Between Oceans" is stunning to see, and the performances are of the highest caliber, but it's all packaged in a story that just doesn't earn its stay, or our tears.