Thursday, September 1, 2016

A romance burdened by melodrama

Light Between the Oceans seems trapped by its austerity.

In The Light Between the Oceans, his most conventional and commercially oriented movie to date, director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines) casts Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander as a husband and wife living on a remote slab of rock off the Australian coast.

The story begins when Fassbender's Tom Sherborne, an emotionally scarred veteran, arrives in a small Australian coastal town toward the end of World War I. Riven with guilt about having survived the carnage so many of his fellow combatants did not, Tom takes an isolating job as a lighthouse keeper.

Even with some heavily applied atmospherics, watching a man tend to a lighthouse doesn't make for much of a drama, so a story kicks in.

Cianfrance, who wrote the screenplay based on a 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, quickly brings Tom together with Isabel (Vikander), the daughter of the man who oversees activities at the lighthouse.

Attractive and glowing with vivacity, Vikander's Isabel breaks through Tom's emotional armor. She wins Tom's heart, and soon becomes the lighthouse keeper's wife.

Isabel desperately wants to become pregnant, but she suffers through a couple of miscarriages that demoralize her and tarnish the glow of romance.

Then, the improbable happens. A lifeboat boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a still-living infant. Isabel implores Tom to keep the child.

Tom knows Isabel's request will open the door to moral and legal difficulties, but love compels him to bury the dead man and allow Isabel to raise the child.

Young Lucy becomes the object of Tom and Isabel's mutual affection, and for a time, they live as a happy family -- until, of course, they don't.

For those who don't know the story, I'll say no more except that Rachel Weisz shows up about midway through in a role that helps give a sagging story some real humanity.

Heavily reliant on close-ups that allow the camera to study the actors' faces, Cianfrance's approach doesn't quite mesh with increasingly melodramatic material that revolves around Tom's attempts to unburden himself of the guilt he's been carrying.

Fassbender captures the stoic control with which Tom approaches his post-war suffering, and Vikander conveys Isabel's misguided willfulness, but, as I suggested, they're both outdone by Weisz, as a grieving, tormented woman.

The rest of the story concern's Tom's attempt to make things right, before the movie finds an ending (a postscript, really) that's more sentimental than one might expect from Cianfrance.

Despite Cianfrance's attempts at infusing every moment with an aura of importance and depth, The Light Between Oceans can't disguise the fact it's a certifiable weepy -- only one that's a too austere and self-absorbed to give the tear ducts a proper workout.

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