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Review – The Light Between Oceans

With Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown. Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance. Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sexual content. 132 minutes.

It’s not been a great summer at the movies. The animation was pretty good, the comedies were weak, and the superhero movies all blurred together. The last few months of the year generally bring the grown-up films–Oscar-bait, as they’re known–but usually we have to wait until mid-September for them to start to roll out. Traditionally Labor Day weekend was a dumping ground.

Which is why it’s so unusual that THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is opening now. Or maybe not. It’s got a superb cast, none of whom are well known by name by the public, although the faces are familiar. Perhaps it’s the perfect time to release a serious and moving drama that doesn’t have any star power to guarantee a big opening weekend.

Michael Fassbender (“X-Men: First Class,” “12 Years a Slave”) is Tom Sherborne, a veteran of World War I, who was emotionally scarred by his experiences. He takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the coast of Australia, happy for the solitude. During one of his trips to the mainland, he becomes involved with Isabel Graysmark, played by Alicia Vikander (“Ex Machina,” “The Danish Girl,” “Jason Bourne”), and they marry. For a while it is a happy marriage, but after two miscarriages, there are strains.

Then a rowboat is spotted off the island with two inhabitants: a dead man and a live baby. Isabel wants to claim the baby for their own. That fateful decision hangs over the rest of the story and it is because we have by that time becomes so invested in the characters that it has an impact. The only “special effects” that need concern us in this movie are the power of raw–and very real–human emotions.

It’s precislely because the two leads are not stars that we bring no expectations to their performances. By contrast when we see a star like Tom Hanks–even as a gangster in “Road to Perdition”–we know we’re going to sympathize with his character’s essential goodness. Fassbender has played a variety of roles, and each one is a revelation. His lighthouse keeper is decent man hounded by guilt over his surviving the war when so many others died. By narrowing his world to the lighthouse, he regains some sense of control.

Vikander, whose career has burned brightly over the last couple of years, makes Isabel yet another character who we think we get at first sight. She then peels back the layers so we discover Isabel is more complicated than the sweet young thing who captured Tom’s heart. The supporting cast includes veterans Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown, and another actress–Rachel Weisz–who has a long career although you may not immediately place her. (In Weisz’s case, that may change after her leading role in the forthcoming “Denial.”)

Writer/director Derek Cianfrance, in adapting M. L. Stedman’s novel, contrasts the two primary locations of the island and the village as two differing forms of isolation from the rest of the world, leaving us to ponder who or what the metaphoric “light” of the title is meant to be. That a movie has us reflecting on the human condition rather than whether there will be a sequel does send one unmistakable message. “The Light Between Oceans” tells us loud and clear that summer is over and it’s okay for grown-ups to go to the movies again.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


About Daniel M. Kimmel

Film critic, author, lecturer.

2 responses »

  1. “Doesn’t have any star power” – a comment about a film starring two 2016 Academy Award nominees.

    • Daniel M. Kimmel

      Actually, Alicia Vikander WON her Oscar for her supporting role in “The Danish Girl.” She and Fassbender are immensely talented actors, but neither has yet achieved stardom which requires more than nominations (or awards) or even leading roles. Stardom comes when a performer can “open” a film — when moviegoers want to go see “the new George Clooney movie” or “the new picture with Jennifer Lawrence.” Neither Fassbender or Vikander have reached that level of fame or fandom. They may well do so. Right now many moviegoers are still learning their names and faces.

      Stardom is an economic judgement, not a critical assessment.


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