Over the Labor Day weekend, Lori and I ventured out to our neighborhood theater for what has become a rare experience — seeing a first-run movie on the big screen.
In this age of streaming, which allows viewing virtually anything anywhere anytime, it’s still a treat to see a motion picture as it’s meant to be seen. Especially when the film is good enough to justify the steep cost of admission.
“The Light Between Oceans” isn’t a perfect movie, or even a great one. But I liked it well enough that I’d recommend it to anyone who’s drawn to a story centered on vulnerable characters and compelling moral choices. Add in lustrous cinematography and a talented, international cast and you’ve got a winner.
The movie is based on a novel by M.L. Stedman, an Australian author. I was unfamiliar with the book, so I walked in with no expectations. I left pretty impressed, though a review in The New Yorker I read a few days later faulted the film for being “nonsensical” and “rather prim.”
Michael Fassbender, the Irish-German actor who played a sadistic slave owner in “12 Years A Slave,” plays the lead role of Tom Sherbourne. Alicia Vikander, the Swedish actress who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in “The Danish Girl,” plays his wife, Isabel. Rachel Weisz, the British actress who won in the same category for her work in “The Constant Gardener,” plays Hannah, a young widow. The director is Derek Cianfrance, whose previous films include “Blue Valentine.”
The story takes place just after the First World War. As a veteran of that conflict, Tom has seen too much death, so he welcomes the opportunity to accept a position as a lighthouse keeper off the coast of Australia, a job that would seem to guarantee isolation and ample time for introspection and possible healing.
Before leaving the mainland, however, he meets Isabel. He goes off to work on the fictional island of Janus, but they correspond and when Tom returns to the village where Isabel lives, they quickly fall in love and get married. The couple move to Janus, where they are the only humans, and agree to start a family. Poor Isabel has not one but two miscarriages.
So when a small boat comes ashore one day bearing a dead man and an infant girl, with no sign of who they are or what brought them there, the couple must decide: Do they keep the child and pretend it is theirs? Or do they make an effort to return the child to its mother? That is, if the mother is even alive?
Isabel argues strongly for keeping the child. Tom acquiesces. They name her Lucy.
Four years later, on a visit to the village, Tom figures out that Hannah is the biological mother and that she believes her daughter Grace was lost at sea. His conscience tells him that returning the child is the right thing to do.
But is it? Doing so would crush his wife and thoroughly confuse the little girl they’ve raised as their daughter. Isabel, too, must decide. Can she bear to part with the little girl who came into her life, seemingly as an act of providence?
And what about Hannah? Initially incensed upon learning that Tom and Isabel made no attempt to reach out to her, she now can see how tightly bonded her daughter has become with the couple.
Whose baby is it? With whom does the child truly belong? Is the morally correct action the best option?
These are gut-wrenching questions, and the answers have life-changing consequences for all three adults as well as for little Lucy/Grace. Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz all deliver excellent performances as they convey pain, heartbreak, confusion and sacrifice. Husband and wife are pitted against each other as are the child’s biological and adoptive mothers.
It’s a gripping film. Moral choices are never easy and in this film, you can feel the tug-of-war within each character’s mind and heart. Go see it and consider what you would do in their situations.