I avoid mainstream romance movies like the plague. Unless otherwise advised, you probably should too. Most of them are actual plagues, infecting the indelible concept of human love with sickeningly saccharine falsehoods until it's been sliced up and repackaged into a digestible capitalist film pill.
So where can us hopeless romantics (we many, we unhappy many) turn for touching love affairs? The correct answer, as per usual, is independent film. In the indie world, romance is realistically the bittersweet wonder that we experience throughout our lives (hopefully).
But alas, this is an imperfect world, and sometimes even indie movies pull off the genre to lesser effect. The Light Between Oceans is a perfect example of that imperfection. Despite a promising director and two of the most talented actors working today, it cannot rise above the overdramatic and forgettable waves. It's basically a Nicholas Sparks melodrama with a better cast, shots, and music.
The Light Between Oceans is based on a 2012 novel with the same heavy-handed metaphor of a title. It's one of those films where I never got to know the characters enough to remember their names, so I'll just use the actors' actual names.
The story follows a sunken Michael Fassbender after he finishes serving in World War I. Seeking solitude and a place to recharge, he volunteers to live on an island off the coast of Australia as its sole inhabitant. His job? To oversee the functioning of the island's lighthouse and upkeep of the adjacent house; and to fall in love with Alicia Vikander.
Ok, maybe that wasn't in his job description, but when it inevitably does happen it feels like it was forced under contract. One conversation on a cliff overlooking the ocean, and the two are already passionately in love and promising their hands in marriage. Cue the montage of letters and back massages. I thought I saw Me Before You months ago?
Thankfully, Micheal Fassbender and Alicia Vikander are unparalleled masters of their craft. And not only are they fantastic actors- they're dating in real life! This adds up to a pair of powerhouse performances. Fassbender and Vikander both act from the inside out: their souls seem to have fully enveloped their cinematic personages. Every subtle look and line pours forth from this authentic place, coloring a connection between the two that builds into a vibrant romance.
Their performances and faces aren't the only beautiful parts of The Light Between Oceans: Adam Arkapaw's cinematography is a brilliant color palette of its own. Gorgeous hues and expansive landscapes flood the screen, basking the loveliness and grimness of the film's events with images that lean defiantly towards the former. Some shots are as breathtaking as anything you've seen outside of a theater. The soundtrack mirrors this hopeful demeanor with verve.
The magnificence of it all is enough to distract you from a miserably melodramatic first half. After the two central characters instantly fall for each other, The Light Between Oceans does not lighten up on eye-roll worthy dialogue and development. Cute moments are inconceivably exquisite; depressing moments are earth-shattering. The narrative refuses to deal in anything but broad strokes.
The first half is particularly boring, as it lacks a grabber and the narrative's obviousness overwhelms the characters. The second half introduces the main thrust of the plot: the couple rescues a baby lost at sea and decides to raise her as their own, which requires lying to their friends and family- especially after they meet the child's distraught mother (Rachel Weisz) years later.
This doesn't save the movie from its storytelling flaws, but the gripping turn of events adds a focus that keeps us in our seats. Even overwrought romance can benefit from familial plot twists and the conflict between two mothers. Director Derek Cianfrance- indie virtuoso behind Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines- struggles to adapt the novel in two hour form, but his usual thematic strength is intact. Cianfrance loves infusing the passage of time with the grey areas of morality, and his work here echoes that strongly.
The Light Between Oceans is a pretty movie to be sure, and the lovers at its center are more than convincing. But it can't escape the lingering shots on single tears and longing looks into the distance.