The Light Between Oceans is one of those films that comes issued with a handy how-to-use manual. Shudder as hero arrives on remote Australian island to man lighthouse. Cheer when in swift dash to mainland he secures hot bride to join him. Grimace when her womb proves incapable of holding anything in for a whole nine months. Bring heart to mouth as baby is somewhat implausibly washed ashore in rowing boat. For rest of film, carry on weeping.
The source material is the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, which has sold millions in loads of languages. It features a Hardy-esque plot of flatpack sadism in which punishment is administered even-handedly to a trio of protagonists. Such plots — see also The Bridges of Madison County — have a habit of attracting major players for no doubt estimable reasons while also totally giving them an Oscar shot. Here the sizzling leads are Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, with best supporting miserablism from Rachel Weisz. Anyone from Australian Equity wondering why its own members were not deemed box office enough to play this blighted trio should address their complaints to British producer David Heyman and American screenwriter/director Derek Cianfrance. Fourth billing goes to omnipresent Aussie Bryan Brown, although he has only one brief scene.
Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a Flanders veteran who craves solitude after four years of trench foot. (We begin in 1919 or so, though no one seems to have PTSD.) With his velociraptor grin and berg-blue irises, Fassbender embodies more than anyone since Clint a towering, taciturn, go-it-alone big-screen man’s manliness. At the sight of him heroines’ knee joints turn to putty. So it proves here. Vikander, as Isabel, the daughter of a local schoolmaster, has no sooner spotted Tom than she’s favouring him with an array of up-for-it dark-eyed gawps. One clifftop picnic and a short correspondence later, they are spliced and sailing off to Janus, the island rising like a sea monster between the titular oceans and blessed by a ceaseless parade of Halloween-orange sunsets. With an hour and 45 minutes still to run, you correctly intuit that they can expect precious few favours from the forces of destiny.
After two miscarriages, the infant girl is duly washed ashore in a dinghy also containing her dead father. The sensible plot-foiling choice would be to report the incident but Isabel convinces Tom against his better judgment to accept this maritime donation. Their joy is complete only for the identity of the bereaved mother to be revealed to Tom when they sail to the mainland for the christening. His conscience eventually gives the game away and the constabulary arrive to clap him in irons and restore the child, now five, to her birth mother (Weisz), which is when the narrative really starts to writhe in agony.
In her short career, Vikander has perfected the knack of earnest emoting. Just as the Inuit have all those different words for snow, she moves through an impressive repertoire of lachrymosity settings: her waterworks stylings include big tears, little tears, saliva and much snot. Fassbender also gives good nose-crying. The problem with all these open faucets is that they rather tend to desiccate one’s own ducts. As do the symphony sunsets, which demand standing ovations, and the stringy soundtrack from Alexandre Desplat, which is essentially a long series of heartbreak emojis.
Cianfrance’s script is landmined with dramatic irony in which characters thank their lucky stars that life has not dropped a ton of bricks on their head, nor has any plans to do so. There’s plenty of houseroom for such harbingers: after a year in the edit suite, Cianfrance couldn’t go any shorter than 133 long old minutes. And even then the final act feels like a frenetic dash for the tape.
The acting is copper-bottomed, of course: the stars do what’s required and more. And yet the most affecting scene of all finds the young girl resisting the love of her birth mother. The Light Between Oceans should be avoided by anyone who has ever been unsuccessful in the adoption process. Or had a bad time running a lighthouse. Suckers for manipulation, fill your boots.