Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On "The Light Between Oceans"

Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance seems to be preoccupied with consequences and all the messy, time-lapsed emotions that come along with them. In his previous film, the masterful "The Place Beyond the Pines", he quickly aborts the gritty, burned-out-looking crime thriller premise about halfway through and jumps ahead in time more than a decade to ponder the fate of two children helplessly caught up in the maelstrom of their parents decisions. And with his latest film, titled "The Light Between Oceans", (based on the novel of the same name by M.L.Stedman), the innocent are at the mercy of another bad decision by two people hopelessly dealing with grief and loss. It's certainly a prestige picture... full of handsomely mounted purpose and sweeping drama.... but it also defiantly stands its own ground as a film imprinted with the soul of its filmmaker and deserves its hard-earned whimpers and eye swells.

Somewhat battered by critics and avoided (thus far) by audiences, perhaps its a film done under by its tell-too-much-trailers or the convenient Labor Day weekend schedule release. Too early for the fall and way too heavy for late summer. Or perhaps its subject matter.... about a despairing lighthouse-tending couple who find an abandoned baby and keep it as their own despite the fact the real mother shows up years later.... felt like standard Lifetime TV drama stuff. Regardless, Cinafrance's foray into mainstream filmmaking (after the very independent "Blue Valentine" in 2010 and the aforementioned "The Place Beyond the Pines" in 2012) hasn't landed him the unadorned praise of his earlier work, which is a shame because the film often reaches and maintains a level of excellence that's been sorely missed so far this year.

As the isolated young couple, living on a coastal plateau and cut off from the rest of the Australian mainland after World War I, (Tom,) Michael Fassbender and Isabel (Alicia Vikander)- who's so marvelous again here, able to convey so much depth and emotion with the delicate canvas of her beautiful face- quickly become antiheroes of this noirish period piece in which her despair over losing two pregnancies due to miscarriages sees them make a very tough decision when a baby and dead man wash up shore in a small boat. She talks her strict, rule-regarding husband into keeping the baby and they live happily for several years. It's only when they return to town that they stumble upon the real mother (Rachel Weisz) both grieving and desperately searching for answers to her German husband and baby's disappearance.

Working it's way through a series of guilty note passing and sublimated blame, "The Light Between the Oceans" pivots in its second half and becomes a mournful examination of the bad decisions and its life-altering impact on the three people at its center. Even more moving is the film's final few minutes as its skips even farther into the future and, like "The Place Beyond the Pines" or this year's other treatise on missed expectations and deep-seated regret titled "Indignation", the film honestly pulls on the heartstrings and drastically alters the perception of the right-or-wrong actions of  Tom and Isabel in the eyes of the person most affected by their decisions. I'm a sap for this type of generational storytelling, and "The Light Between Oceans" hits the solid spot there.

In addition to the strong narrative chops, Cianfrance adapts his urgent handheld camera technique to strong results here. In one scene, very early in the courtship between Tom and Isabel, the camera hovers just on the opposite side of a carriage they've dismounted after their date and Cianfrance frames them perfectly in a darkened hue. No words are exchanged, but the mounting kinship and mutual attraction is felt through the lens. Its almost a throwaway snatch of time, but it's a voluminous moment. Even more adventurous for a prestige "weepie" such as this is the way Cianfrance and novelist Stedman etch the characters in realistic grades of reason. There are no grand villains or truly repugnant actions. Each motive, action and reaction are modulated carefully. Admittedly, Cianfrance errs on the side of Vikander's Isabel as the most damaged and empathetic character of the three, such as the aesthetic choice to cut from a cold medium shot of Fassbender's Tom being questioned by the police to a soft dissolve close-up of the weary and tear-stained face of Isabel in the same position. Not without her Shakesperian deviancy to fulfill her dreams of a happy family, even her actions can be understood, appreciated and mourned.

The same can be said for Rachel Weisz's Hannah and the complications she endures as the estranged mother whose daughter is ripped from her life. Serving as the persecuted figure in the film, even her third act motivations don't ring false or contrived. It's rare that three well defined, intelligent characters exist in a film whose primary undercurrents are supremely melodramatic.

Even though its failing to find an audience (and generating quite the snark from online blurbs whose presence is growing increasingly unwelcome in these lightning quick digital times), "The Light Between Oceans" deserves to be seen and recognized as a piece of proper Hollywood fall season bait done oh so right by Cianfrance and his attention to the complicated and treacherous decisions that ultimately save one life but destroy many others.

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