As summer ends and we plunge headlong into fall, big-budget action movies make way for small intimate dramas designed to pull in older audiences and perhaps a few awards. The funny thing about drama, is that it’s harder to do than most people think, and when it goes wrong, it can go very very wrong.
The Light Between Oceans is an absolutely disastrous attempt at a drama. Ignore the posters that make this look like a Nicholas Spark’s romance, if you’re going to this to have your heart-warmed or be swept off your feet by a charming Fassbender, you’re in the wrong movie. That said, I don’t know what this movie offers in place of that.
The film is adapted from an obviously truncated novel by M. L. Stedman. The novel is a part of a mini-genre that sprang up at the end of the last century–books that explore one moral dilemma and all the implications of the subsequent choices made by its characters. Once more for the people in the back: this isn’t a romance. It is, however, unwatchable.
Michael Fassbender plays Tom, a veteran of World War One who becomes a lighthouse keeper on an uninhabited island. The previous lighthouse keeper committed suicide, but don’t worry, that detail has absolutely no bearing on the coming story. After a brief romance he marries the much younger Isabelle (played by Alicia Vikander) and the two attempt to have a family. After two miscarriages, a dead man and a living baby wash up on the island and at her behest they keep the baby and hide the dead man’s body.
This takes a very short time to sum up, but takes up at least 40 minutes of the movie. I question why were shown all of this build-up in such a plodding manner, when during this time we learn almost nothing about the characters, particularly Tom. This lack of knowledge into Tom’s backstory makes it seem as though he’s hiding something, combined with the off-kilter and uncomfortably close shooting style adopted in the early portion of the film. I felt a sense of dread early on and throughout the first act. When I thought the film was building to some sort of reveal, I was okay with this ominous tone, but looking back I think it is a dramatic failure. Any blissful romance the film-makers intended to convey comes across completely cold and off, making the tonal shift of act two completely unnoticeable. In essence, the film fails on the most basic level of changing our emotions, since the characters happiness at the beginning of the film was never properly communicated.
The performances in the film are generally fine, with Vikander being the stand-out. Her unhinged but sympathetic Isabelle is a fully fleshed out performance nearly without flaw. Fassbender on the other hand, gives us nothing but a furrowed brow and far off gazes. In his defense, he is given nothing to do with his incredibly boring character. Towards the end of the film I was certain we would get some sort of reveal into why he is the way he is, but there was truly nothing to him. Rachel Weisz gives a strong if overstated performance as the most like-able character in the movie.
In watching The Light Between Oceans I was at first intrigued, then confused, then bored. When the credits rolled I felt exhausted. Not emotionally, as the film probably intended, but critically. The confusing tone and deliberate pacing kept me guessing what lay in store at the end of the film. The answer, sadly, is nothing. If this book were to be adapted again by an un-ambitious but competent director, it could be another throwaway early fall drama that makes your Mom cry but bores you to tears. Such as it is, The Light Between Oceans is a failure of visual storytelling and one of the worst dramas I’ve seen in years.
The Light Between Oceans will be released Friday.