Review: The Light Between Oceans


DIR/WRI: Derek Cianfrance • PRO: Jeffrey Clifford, David Heyman • DOP: Adam Arkapaw • ED: Jim Helton, Ron Patane • DES: Karen Murphy • MUS: Alexandre Desplat • CAST: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz

On the surface, The Light Between Oceans, a sombre period-piece, might seem a stark stylistic shift for director Derek Cianfrance, (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines). But make no mistake, contrary to appearances, Between Oceans seems perfectly at home in Cianfrance’s blossoming cinematic canon. The subtle relationship dynamic shifts and strains under the narrative surface, contorting characters’ lives with a masterful subtlety that’s become a distinctive hallmark of Cianfrance’s work.

Caught head-first in the cold breeze climbing up the stairs to the lighthouse. A piercing whistling rings in the ears. Shrapnel cold rain crashes against the face. Tom Sherborne (Michael Fassbender) has been bestowed the temporary post of lighthouse keeper on the Island of Janus by the Commonwealth. Tom’s an Australian veteran of the Great War. He’s anchored by the guilt of his survival and suffocated by a sense of responsibility for his part in the horrors deep in the trenches. Hell-bent on isolating himself from the world, Tom seeks some solace where he can cause pain to no one but himself.  A hundred miles from the nearest person in every direction and walled in by oppressive grey cliffs and rock faces, life on the island Janus is the definition of remote.

But the hours pass slowly if you don’t keep busy. While alone on Janus with nothing but his work and thoughts, Tom develops a powerful infatuation with Isabel; the daughter of his employer, whom he met briefly before his departure. Shortly after, he’s finally offered a permanent post as lighthouse keeper, Tom and Isabel elope and marry and she comes to live on the island. And with Isabel, Tom starts carving out a meaningful path to a salvation he never thought possible. Fate, however, intervenes, driving romance to anguish with a miscarriage, leaving their hearts torn between two worlds on the Island of Janus. Torn between hope and pain, surrounded by a killer sea, whose waves shift from sedate calm to the whips and cracks of slicing violent erosion.

Stylistically the films reminiscent of the haunting sensuality of Peter Weir, with distinct echoes of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Adam Arkapaw’s masterful cinematography utilises a combination of the scenic epicness of David Lean, and the sobering intimacy of Sven Nykvist’s work with Bergman. Arkapaw’s camerawork has a sublime touch that’s always intimate, never overtly epic, and always in service of the characters’ shifting emotional realities. The crisp coastal scenery provides the biting backdrop to the psychic turmoil and vulnerability of characters lost in the sheer chaos of existence. These potent visuals are complimented by Alexandre Desplat’s haunting score. There’s a classicism to Alexandre Desplat’s arrangements which magnifies the romance and idealism central to the film. Desplat’s majestic piano compositions also bring an angelic religiousness to the table heightening the spiritual conflict burdening the characters.

Fassbender excels in establishing a core sense of naivety and vulnerability, and illuminates the seemingly limitless breadth of his talent. Alicia Vikander gives an intoxicating, powerful performance as Isabel bringing an unyielding maternal strength to the role. This is further complimented by a tremendous supporting cast, including the ever gracious Rachel Weisz as Hannah.

With Between Oceans, Cianfrance has crafted a candid sensual exploration of forgiveness, and the complexities of the human condition in arriving at forgiveness. The Light Between Oceans firmly establishes Cianfrance’s deep mastery of the craft, and secures his reputation as a visionary filmmaker with a delicate cinematic touch that’s rarely, if ever seen, magnetic to watch, and deserving of nothing less than celebration

Michael Lee

132 minutes
12A (See IFCO for details)

The Light Between Oceans is released 4th November 2016

The Light Between Oceans – Official Website


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