The Light Between Oceans: A Place Beyond the Shore, by David Bax
Derek Cianfrance’s movies tend to be about unhappy people. With his beautiful, melancholy new film, The Light Between Oceans, he’s upped the ante. Set in a small, coastal Australian town in the early 1920s, it’s less about people who are unhappy and more about a people who are unhappy. In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the surviving soldiers are shattered by what they’ve seen and the rest of the homeland is shattered by what they’ve lost. It may be noble to seek solace in solitude and the simple pleasures of love and family but, as Cianfrance illustrates, dark events—be they war or a selfish decision based on good intentions—leave stains across time and communities alike.
Michael Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, one of those living soldiers, who accepts a position as a lighthouse keeper with the intention of spending as much time alone as possible. The job will require him to spend months at a time as the only resident on a tiny island off Australia’s Western coast, with supplies occasionally carried over on boat from the nearby town of Partageuse. Rare though his trips into town may be, he soon begins setting aside time within them to visit Isabel Graysmark, the daughter of one of the town’s prominent families. After a brief courtship, they are wed and Cianfrance revels in their vibrant, pulsing adoration of one another. Two people blissfully living alone on an island is a fitting metaphor for what love feels like, especially in its early stages.
Of course, it can’t go on that way forever. Just as you begin to hope no conflict will invade their idyll, bad luck comes rolling onto the island with a thick crash of waves and a driving, thundering storm. There’s something expressionistic yet subtle about the way Cianfrance uses the characters’ natural surroundings to illustrate their situations and their frames of mind. The rain is a bad omen and, as circumstances drive more of a barrier between Tom and Isabel, Cianfrance finds way to separate them physically, utilizing everything from walls to hillsides to emphasize the growing distance between them.
Another arrow in Cianfrance’s quiver is the score by the great Alexandre Desplat, which varies from delicate to overpowering according to the needs of the picture. So much of The Light Between Oceans is informed by its seaside setting and Desplat’s music is no exception. It cascades like the waves and often seems to be carrying human sounds and voices as if on the wind from a great distance.
The same somatic notes can be found throughout The Light Between Oceans. From the clothing to the furniture to the homes and the lighthouse itself, everything feels handmade, imbued with the history of those who created it and those who have lived their lives in it and around it. And, despite its sweep and its lush period detail, the movie films similarly handmade, with the same quietly elegant naturalism of Cianfrance’s previous work.
His most recent film, the staggering, epic The Place Beyond the Pines, dealt with crimes and transgressions that echoed across generations. In much the same way, The Light Between Oceans is a film about the way that tragedy can connect families, whether they want it to or not. A sin, like even the smallest drop in the ocean, can carry ripples far and wide.