When I sit down to watch any movie, there almost always ends up being at least one aspect of it that strikes me as as "wrong" in some way or another. I don't actively search for these elements — they just pop up along the way, and I'm sure you notice them too. Sometimes it's a character making a decision that doesn't feel justified, or a shot that seems particularly out of place. Sometimes it's a super cheesy line of dialogue, or an actor edging just a bit too far over the top as to briefly pull me out of the performance. Too many of these moments can ruin a movie, but for the most part, they're just little blips that I observe and sail right past. For me, The Light Between Oceans is the extraordinarily rare film that does not contain a single false note. I was utterly lost in the film from beginning to end, engulfed in every detail from the stitching on the characters' clothing to the heartbreaking events that propel its story. Tinged with melancholy and brushed with a light touch of hope, The Light Between Oceans is an unforgettable experience.
The Light Between Oceans
Writer/Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
The plot is straightforward and relatively simple. It's about a haunted World War I veteran named Tom (Michael Fassbender) who becomes a lighthouse keeper and learns to experience joy again when he marries a bright young woman named Isabel (Alicia Vikander). After the two endure trouble having children, a boat with a newborn baby in it washes up on shore of their secluded island and they decide to pass the child off as their own. Years later, they meet the child's real mother (Rachel Weisz) and Tom's guilt about what they've done threatens to rip their family apart.
As always, it comes down to execution, and writer/director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond The Pines) flawlessly commands every facet of what we see on screen. It's a truly stunning thing to behold: not just actors, a director, and a cinematographer working at the top of their games, but every aspect of production coalescing to form a singular vision and remaining at an incredibly high bar over the film's two-plus hour duration.
Every performance is pitch perfect, from the towering leads all the way down to the smallest speaking role. Fassbender is tremendous as the stone-faced former soldier who softens up when he meets the love of his life, and whether he's playing with his little girl or wracked by his decisions, he remains spellbinding to watch. Vikander is an absolute revelation as Isabel, an effervescent soul who wears her love and loss on her sleeve. Her breathless performance made me feel — palpably feel — every emotion she experiences, and this is the kind of transcendent work that would vault her to the top of every casting director's list if she hadn't already been there for a year. Because those two are so outstanding, I can imagine a scenario in which Rachel Weisz is overlooked. That would be a crime, because she's every bit as amazing here, internalizing a myriad of feelings as this story progresses and brimming with so much pain, guilt, and sorrow that you fear she could overflow at any second.
Adam Arkapaw's cinematography envelops the audience in warmth, with exquisite yellows, greens, and light grays accentuating the awe-inspiring landscape of the island, which feels like the edge of the known world. Even the production design is immaculate, with an ancient, out of tune piano in the couple's home alternately serving as a charming antique and a harbinger of immeasurable despair. (Alexandre Desplat's feathery, piano-heavy score is, unsurprisingly, also terrific.) And from what I've heard, Cianfrance's excellent screenplay hews pretty closely to M.L. Stedman's best-selling novel of the same name, and there's an earnestness to the storytelling that feels as if it's from another era. This is the anti-blockbuster in practically every respect.
I'm fully aware of the risk of overhyping this movie, especially considering how drastically different people react to these sorts of narratives. But movies like this either connect with you or they don't, and this one connected so squarely with me that I felt like a home run ball that Cianfrance launched out of a stadium with the perfect swing. This is the kind of movie that makes me wish I were a better writer, solely so I could more effectively express my love for it. So I'll keep it simple: not only is The Light Between Oceans one of the best films of 2016, it may be one of the best dramas I've ever seen.