Friday, September 2, 2016

The Light Between Oceans: Not bright enough

The Light Between Oceans (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.2.16

Embracing an overblown melodrama requires an act of faith on the viewer’s part: a willingness to sympathize with the protagonists — to understand and accept their behavior as reasonable — even if (when) they yield to ill-advised impulses.

After several failed attempts to start a family, Tom (Michael Fassbender) and Isabel (Alicia
Vikander) finally are rewarded with a child of their own ... but in a rather unexpected
manner, and one that will have tragic consequences.
But if they cross the threshold of acceptable conduct — if they betray our trust with an act too bewildering, or heinous — then the film’s hold on us is broken. The spell under which we’ve allowed ourselves to be placed, shatters like a broken mirror.

Such is the case with scripter/director Derek Cianfrance’s adaptation of Australian author M.L. Stedman’s 2012 novel, The Light Between Oceans. Because, despite the best efforts of its two talented stars, there comes a moment beyond which we cannot maintain sangfroid: a plot hiccup that is, indeed, unforgiveable. Compassion, and the patience to put up with anything that follows, are lost forever.

Mind you, the film’s contrived plot and execution require considerable endurance to begin with. Cianfrance’s lackadaisical approach is old-style Hollywood, by way of Thomas Hardy or the Bronte sisters. He and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw favor extremely tight close-ups, and while Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander respond to that challenge, with nuanced expressions, the technique grows tiresome.

So does Alexandre Desplat’s melancholy orchestral score. Mind you, I’ve been an avid fan of Desplat’s work ever since 2003’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, but his despondent themes here hammer the melodrama; the despair is relentless. And with Cianfrance subjecting us to 132 minutes of this morose character study, it’s just too much.

No doubt everything worked in Stedman’s novel; this sort of saga was born for the literary form. But as a film, with a self-indulgent director who prefers long-suffering gazes to expository dialogue, one can’t help feeling that he’s piling on the schmaltz and noble sacrifice with a shovel.

The setting is the remote edge of Western Australia, immediately following World War I. Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender), a shell-shocked veteran, has come to the tiny community of Partaguese in order to accept a posting as keeper of the crucial lighthouse, on the isolated and otherwise uninhabited Janus Rock. The island is miles from land, approachable only by boat, although the light keeper’s house has running water and all essential amenities (handy, that).

Tom is quiet, withdrawn and stoic: unable to understand why he was spared, when so many of his comrades perished on the battlefield. The experience has left him uncomfortable in the company of other people; his seclusion on Janus Rock isn’t merely by way of comfort, but to some degree — in his mind — some sort of necessary, self-imposed punishment, for having survived.

He accepts this job, as the film opens, during his initial arrival in Partaguese, across the harbor from Janus Rock; he also makes occasional visits thereafter. In this manner he meets Isabel Graysmark (Vikander), a vivacious young woman who has become the sole remaining child in her family, both brothers having been killed in the war. This role has grown uncomfortable, as she’s not quite sure how to behave around her grieving parents (Garry Macdonald and Jane Menelaus).

We get a sense of an impulsive nature; it therefore isn’t surprising when Isabel flirts quite brazenly with Tom. But it’s too soon; he’s not ready for the pressures of intimacy. They initially correspond by mail, their respective letters shared by means of Tom’s occasional supply boat, the Windward Spirit. And yet the result is inevitable; Isabel has awakened genuine feeling in him. They soon marry, and she joins him on Janus Rock.

This actually pleases everybody back in Partaguese; it’s far better for their lighthouse keeper to be surrounded by a wife and children.

Thus far, we can’t help being captivated, just as we grieve for the demons that chew at Tom’s soul. Fassbender plays this role superbly, his often drawn features suggesting relentless nightmares, his occasional hesitant smiles like a burst of radiant sunlight. More than any other man who ever lived, he deserves some joy; watching Tom gradually blossom with happiness — with peace — is extremely satisfying.

Vikander, in turn, makes Isabel radiantly cheerful, kind and loving. Initially, it’s fun to watch Vikander work the camera, during Cianfrance’s long, lingering close-ups; she suggests a wealth of emotions, granting Isabel the sense of wonder — an entire island to explore! — that we’d expect from a curious and delighted child.

And yet we also wonder: Could Isabel possibly possess the tough pioneer spirit necessary to survive — let alone thrive — in such a far-flung setting? She’s so obviously a social creature.

Her radiant façade crumbles as the next few years pass, and efforts to start a family end in crisis, her body refusing to cooperate. The second miscarriage leaves her dangerously vulnerable: a delicate glass figurine balanced at the edge of a high table, a breath of wind away from shattering. Tom sees this, senses the danger, but feels helpless.
Then, the unexpected miracle: A dinghy drifts onto the beach, containing a recently deceased young man and a squalling infant. Tom can’t imagine where they could have come from — survivors of a passing ship? — but Isabel doesn’t care: God has granted her the baby she couldn’t produce herself. She begs Tom not to report this incident in the essential daily log, a request that rips at the soul of a man accustomed to rules and order.

But nobody will ever know, Isabel insists. Her most recent miscarriage hasn’t been shared with anybody back in Partaguese, and this baby girl is about the right age; everybody will make the logical assumption.

Vikander’s features are crazed, desperate: every inch the look of a woman clinging to a final shred of hope. Tom capitulates; from this point onward, even during the man’s happier moments, Fassbender seems to wince, invisibly, as if fearing a lightning strike from an unseen thundercloud above his head.

Time passes. As the child is christened, during a brief visit to Partaguese, Tom spots a woman kneeling in front of a church gravesite. This is Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), grieving over — as Tom discovers, when he reads the headstone — a husband and baby lost at sea. Tom immediately knows that the deception cannot continue, that he and Isabel must return the child to her mother.

But Isabel, having bonded with the little girl, refuses.

The stage thus set for obvious tragedy, the narrative subsequently enters dicey waters, with subsequent behavior — by both Isabel and Hannah — increasingly difficult to tolerate. Until, finally, matters become impossible to accept.

Try as she might, Vikander can’t pull off what is required; that cripples most events in the third act. Weisz also has an uphill struggle, given the wild emotional swings demanded of her character. Too much happens too quickly, as the story approaches its climax; Hannah’s struggles and decisions may have made sense in Stedman’s novel, but Weisz isn’t given enough screen time to make Hannah believable.

Fassbender, on the other hand, remains consistently persuasive, deftly conveying self-sacrifice and the calm acceptance of fate that we’ve seen from noble protagonists in (for example) The Return of Martin Guerre, Sommersby and A Tale of Two Cities.

Jack Thompson is memorable as the gruff and shrewdly perceptive Ralph, the sea-faring skipper of the Windward Spirit, and the closest Tom has to an actual friend. Bryan Brown makes the most of several keys scenes late in the story, as Hannah’s wealthy and influential father, Septimus (who, thus, has plenty of local influence). But Cianfrance errs slightly here: Back-story details reveal that Hannah’s father disowned her when she married against his wishes ... and yet they’re fully reconciled, when we meet Septimus. Say what?

The location setting is breathtaking, with New Zealand’s Cape Campbell Lighthouse standing in for Janus Rock, which — granting the story its title — faces the juncture of the Indian and Southern oceans. Jacob Ribicoff’s sound design is excellent, the frequently roaring winds and occasional storms heightening the sense of being at the edge of the world.

Production designer Karen Murphy does equally well, dressing New Zealand’s community of Dunedin quite charmingly, to create the century-old Partaguese. Erin Benach’s costume design completes the authentic sense of time and place.

But can we endure the narrative machinations and emotional manipulation, when all is said and done?

Not this guy. Nor my Constant Companion, who may have been more irritated than I, as Cianfrance’s puppetmaster manipulations became more blatant, during the third act.

In fairness, this film is a faithful adaptation of Steadman’s novel, and fans likely will swoon over the results. That’s fine: It’s meticulously constructed to captivate viewers of a very specific mindset.

Just bring plenty of hankies.

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