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Past the Popcorn: Oscar Bait is Not Enough to Make Light Between Oceans Shine

by Jeff Walls

Based on the 2012 novel of the same name by M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans is being adapted for the big screen by writer/director Derek Cianfrance, whose previous films Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines have won him some critical praise and indie cred, but have not yet broken him through with most audiences.  The subject matter given to him by the novel combined with the A-list cast he has assembled makes this movie an instant Oscar contender on paper.  Oscars are not won on paper, though.  They are won on the silver screen and this movie does not shine quite bright enough.

Michael Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a veteran of World War I who returns home to Australia and accepts the solitary job of an island lighthouse keeper.  After all of the horrors he has seen during the war, he is looking for the peace and quiet that comes with such a secluded position.  While nearby on the mainland, he meets Alicia Vikander’s Isabel.  The two immediately fall in love, get married, and travel together to live their life with each other on the island.  Their family grows when a baby washes ashore in a stray rowboat.  They decide to informally adopt the girl as their own.  They name her Lucy.

light-between-oceans-insetProblems arise when they return to the mainland and come across a woman named Hannah whose husband and baby girl went missing at sea about the same time as Lucy washed up on their shore.  They are faced with a huge moral decision of whether to admit that Lucy is not theirs and return her to her real mother or to keep the truth a secret and go on living as if the girl is their own.

The plot sounds like it could be a set up for a thriller or an investigation drama with Tom and Isabel trying desperately to stay ahead of the police investigation into the missing girl while the audience sits breathlessly on the edge of their seats.  For better or worse, though, that is not the direction in which writer/director Derek Cianfrance decided to take it.  The movie moves deliberately through its paces and the key plot points are revealed quietly and simply as opposed to being driven home hard to the audience with an accompanying clang on the musical score.

The positive in this approach is that it allows the actors to control the emotions of the film.  Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander deliver excellent performances in the leads, even though Vikander’s role sometimes seems as if it is screaming “Oscar bait” a little too loudly.  The third lead is Rachel Weisz, who plays the mother mourning the supposed loss of her baby girl.  Much like her role in The Lobster earlier this year, Weisz does not show up until about an hour into the movie, but when she does, she delivers.  It is turning out to be a banner year for the actress who has two more movies coming out in the next couple of months.

The negative to the approach is that the movie moves at an incredibly slow pace, which is somewhat ironic considering that before you know it the story has already passed through a time period of five years or so.  I was constantly waiting for something to happen and when it did, it did not come with the impact that one would hope for after such a wait.  It is an interesting story with intriguing moral decisions, but the plodding pace makes sticking with it a challenge in patience.

The Light Between Oceans feels like a movie that will not hit with most audiences, but some, especially those who can somewhat identify with what the characters go through in the movie, may find it very emotionally compelling.  For the rest of us, though, the deliberate pacing makes it a very difficult film with which to connect.

The Light Between Oceans is now playing at the Century Federal Way and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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