“The Light Between Oceans” is a bold new step for Derek Cianfrance

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When I first saw Blue Valentine, I was absolutely bowled over by the talent of Derek Cianfrance. My favorite film of that year, I still consider it a masterpiece. Since then, he has challenged himself with ambitious fare like The Place Beyond the Pines, though this week he has something completely new to share in The Light Between Oceans. A period piece and melodrama, it’s Cianfrance working in a slightly less grounded in gritty reality way, to solid effect. The themes he’s always explored are still there, just packaged in a different way. Some of the people who have loved his prior works might find this a step down, but it’s still very much a worthwhile movie.

The film is an adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s novel of the same name. It follows Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) as he returns to Australia after the war in search of some solitude. He takes the position of lighthouse keeper on a small island in Western Australia, though his loneliness is short lived, as he catches the eye of Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) over on the mainland. They marry and are happy for a time, but are unable to produce children, which frustrates Tom and all but ruins Isabel. Then, fate seemingly intervenes. A boat washes up on shore with a dead man and a crying baby. Isabel sees the baby as a gift, while Tom initially wants to alert the authorities. The choice they make is complicated by the presence of a woman on the mainland years later named Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), who has a story to tell that shakes them to their core. I won’t say what happens next, but it’s emotional. Cianfrance writes and directs, while the rest of the cast includes Florence Clery, Jack Thompson, Thomas Unger, Bryan Brown, and more. Alexandre Desplat provides a wonderful score, while Adam Arkapaw contributes luminous cinematography.

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Though perhaps a small step down from where it needs to be for big time awards contention, this is still a worthwhile movie. The flick traffics in restraint, which could be tough for those expecting a more overt tearjerker, but I think it works. Arkapaw’s visuals and Desplat’s music underscore everything fantastically, while Cianfrance shows that he has a little classic cinema in him. Fassbender is best in show, while Vikander and Weisz are slightly underserved by the story, though still solid. I doubt this film will blow anyone away, and cynics might be quick to dismiss it, but I was moved by what I saw and glad for the experience.

Speaking of awards, there’s still a likely campaign to be waged for Oscar consideration. Look for plays to be made across the board, including Best Picture, Best Director (for Cianfrance), Best Actor (for Fassbender), Best Actress (for Vikander), Best Supporting Actress (for Weisz), Best Adapted Screenplay (for Cianfrance as well), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score. Honestly, the only real plays are probably in Costume Design and Original Score, give or take Supporting Actress for Weisz. Cianfrance is overdue for a nomination, but unless Adapted Screenplay turns out weak, it probably won’t happen this year. Anything else is likely a long shot, but hey…anything is possible right now.

Essentially, this is probably the best possible version of the material we’re presented with, and that’s something. It’s melodramatic and could have been a made for Lifetime outing, but it’s far from that. This weekend, adult audiences would do well to give this one a shot, as it’s very different from what’s been playing in theaters of late. It’s a throwback movie, and we don’t get this sort of thing too often, so appreciate it while you can. Fassbender fans will also enjoy his work here as well. It’s not a perfect piece of cinema, but it’s well worth seeing, so seek it out…

Be sure to check out The Light Between Oceans, in theaters on Friday!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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