The Light Between Oceans, an adaptation of the M.L. Stedman airport weepie, gives Cianfrance the chance to stretch his filmmaking muscles over material that encompasses both of these themes, in a way that approaches a more traditional story structure than we're used to from an auteur who was continually growing more varied in how he unraveled a narrative.
The film, which centers on a lighthouse keeper played by Michael Fassbender and his wife, by Alicia Vikander, portrays their life in post WWI Australia, living off the coast. When an adrift rowboat happens across their line of sight, it carries a corpse and a crying infant. The childless couple makes the fateful decision to raise the child as their own, and in subsequent years, that decision has ramifications that eventually come to bear.
What I found most interesting about The Light Between Oceans is how it posits a few key questions that could make for a worthwhile exploration: "What is the value of biology in the parent-child relationship?" and secondly, and perhaps more strikingly, "When push comes to shove, does the love one holds for a child outweigh that of your significant other?"
The most troubling aspect of the film is that despite holding the promise of some strong, evocative content, the script never bothers to actually answer any of those questions. Opting instead for a Nicholas Sparks style resolution to all of its dilemmas, focusing on the idea of forgiveness over conflict and resentment. It's an unsatisfying take, but is borne out of material whose origin point is typical of that sort of staid conclusion.
Were Cianfrance to get to the point a bit faster, some of its sins could be easier to forgive as the stuff of date-night fluff, but instead we're forced to endure at times thoughtful/at times glacial moments that in a film that, if it worked its way to a point worth serving, would have in turn made for a more satisfying watch. Instead, Cianfrance has basically crafted a really pretty piece of junk. Junk is fine, but just wear the badge proudly, David Fincher's Gone Girl being a great example in this vein.
Still, the performances keep this from being an unpleasant watch. Fassbender and Vikander are really something to behold here, which is nothing new, but Fassbender having chemistry with any leading actress certainly is, and they come off like a real, breathing married couple (I tried to cast the fact that they're actually in a relationship out of my mind). Their performances elevate individual scenes, and just about fooled me into thinking that the movie is more exhilarating than it really is. Vikander is so good, she even sells you on the idea that "yes, keeping this baby is totally the right move." And Fassbender rarely errs, with stoicism looking really good on one of our finest actors.
The Light Between Oceans is a pretty, expertly performed film that feels as brittle as a bad paperback book. It'll certainly hit home with an audience that's receptive to its emotional weight, but if films like The Notebook and The English Patient do little for you, stay home.