Derek Cianfrance makes emotionally naked films. Just think of the raw energy coursing through 2010’s Blue Valentine, his drama about divorce, and 2013’s The Place Beyond the Pines, a saga of fathers and sons. Watching The Light Between Oceans feels different and less spontaneous, largely owing to the sappy source material, the 2012 bestseller by M.L. Stedman.
In his first major-studio film, Cianfrance seems too reliant on the book’s trajectory, the post WWI love story of a lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) and his wife Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who live in tempestuously romantic isolation. There’s enough material here for a dozen soap operas: After two miscarriages, Isabel is inconsolable. Then a small boat washes ashore with a dead man and a live baby girl. An accident at sea? Isabel doesn’t know, but she begs Tom not to report it, to bury the presumed father and to take the child as their own. Tom, whose conscience is in good working order, simmers with guilt. Isabel glows, until a local widow (a stellar Rachel Weisz) claims the baby is hers and that Tom has murdered her husband.
Whew! As storms batter the lighthouse (the film was shot in a remote stretch of New Zealand), Tom and Isabel are similarly pummeled by a whirlwind of emotions. Life mirroring nature in all its wayward ferocity. Too much? You bet. But Fassbender (Magneto in X-Men) and Vikander (an Oscar winner for The Danish Girl), who fell in love during the making of the film, fully commit to their roles and hold us in their grip. The movie, sad to say, can’t keep its head above water.