The Light Between Oceans stands for more than a mere lighthouse in the Atlantic Ocean. That’s not exactly a profound takeaway, but this metaphor encompasses nearly everything the film is about. Many times I found my sympathies caught between a rock and a hard place while watching filmmaker Derek Cianfrance’s attempt at an old school literary adaptation. That’s a good thing, if not everything.
That “light” is a child adrift, found in a rickety boat near those shores of the titular lighthouse, accompanying father deceased but future adopted father (and mother) sprinting to the rescue. As said father, Michael Fassbender can seemingly do no wrong, once again inhabiting a character with breadth and honesty, his Tom Sherbourne a Great War vet whose internal anguish and external masculinity are constantly at odds. As said mother, Alicia Vikander continues a hott streak of passionate performances, her Isabel Graysmark an open book of hope, unwavering. Then, a closed loop of despair once the inevitable revelations prove too much to bear. They are both desperate for parenthood, and a fortuitous answer to their prayers comes ashore just in time. Until then, about an hour in, conflict is sparse with the exception of two miscarriages that appear as necessary strife rather than compelling struggle.
It’d be misery porn were it not for a nice reversal revolving around one finely-tuned piano, or the consistently warm presence of Jack Thompson as a kindly “neighbor.” Compelling struggle finally comes in the form of Rachel Weisz’s character, the lost child’s widowed mother whom Tom can’t help but want to help. As a war veteran, he can’t sit by and watch someone else suffer for his own gain. He believes the child belongs with her mother, and thus events are set in motion that will tear apart Tom and Isabel’s idyllic life at sea. Naturally, Vikander’s Isabel bears the brunt of that domestic chaos, the light of her life instantly taken from her to live with a veritable stranger. Indeed, it’s here where our waffling sympathies take root, as an urgency for justice takes a backseat to the simple question of what’s best for Lucy Graysmark? Who’s her real mother now, the woman who raised her or the woman who gave birth to her?
Both paradigms, nature and nurture, prove to be loving environs for the young girl, and it’s precisely that revelation which makes Cianfrance’s film more than a Lifetime movie of the week. Without such complex emotions, The Light Between Oceans might have easily fallen into that mawkish trap of prestige cinema. Thanks in part to a potent metaphor, it certainly doesn’t.