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Isabel (Alicia Vikander) in 'The Light Between Oceans' (©Touchstone Pictures)
Isabel (Alicia Vikander) in 'The Light Between Oceans' (©Touchstone Pictures)
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Is 'The Light Between Oceans' The Best Film About Maternal Love Ever Made?

Picture of Graham Fuller
Film Editor
Updated: 5 September 2016
The use of the term ‘biological imperative’ to describe the female procreative drive has been frowned on in recent years because it reduces the urge to bear, love, protect, and nurture a child to condescending, pseudo-scientific double-speak. Anyone who sees The Light Between Oceans might feel ashamed to say those cold Darwinian words ever again.

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Derek Cianfrance’s film is a swoony post-World War I drama that leads the Australian lighthouse keeper Tom (Michael Fassbender) to a crushing moral dilemma. After Tom’s wife Isabel (Alicia Vikander) has borne two dead babies, a rowboat containing an infant girl floats up to their rock off the Southwest coast of Australia. Tom buries the baby’s father, whom he also found in the boat. He then yields to Isabel’s understandable desire to raise the girl as their own.

Isabel (Alicia Vikander) and the foundling. (© Touchstone Pictures)
Isabel (Alicia Vikander) and the foundling. ( | © Touchstone Pictures)

Tom dotes on her as she grows. As with many fathers, though, he does not bring the same consuming intensity to parenting as his wife. On a visit to the mainland, he sees a woman, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), who is grieving for the husband and child she believed to be lost at sea some three years earlier. Does he return her daughter to her and risk destroying the woman he loves, or keep her for his and Isabel’s sake and live with the crime? You have to see the movie to find out.

Adapted by Cianfrance from M.L. Stedman’s faintly Hardy-esque novel, The Light Between Oceans is reminiscent of rapturous British romances like Love Story (1944), The Glass Mountain (1949), and David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970) – minus their bathos. The crucial difference is the identity of the love object.

Tom (Michael Fassbender), Isabel (Alicia Vikander). (© Touchstone Pictures)
A dream fulfilled: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander. ( | © Touchstone Pictures)

Tom and Isabel’s idyll as married lovers ends with her losing their first child – a sequence in which her racking labor pains are externalized in a ferocious storm. The death of their second child is almost too much for her to bear. The great, phallic lighthouse, under which they live, mocks her subsequent infertility.

The foundling’s arrival re-routes the film from a romance of lovers to a ‘romance’ between a mother and her child. Isabel’s despair gives way to the sustained ecstasy she experiences while cuddling, cosseting, and teaching the girl they name Lucy. The flip side of her joy is the bereft Hannah’s wretchedness – Weisz’s body language and air of defeat fully convey her desolation.

It’s rare for a mainstream movie to lavish such time and attention on a woman’s yearning for a child and her requited maternal passion – especially one directed by a man. There is good reason for that. Such devotion is a cultural expectation that’s generally considered anathema to art, smacking as it does of rank sentimentalism – the saccharine aura of greetings cards and archaic songs like ‘M.O.T.H.E.R.’ and ‘My Mammy.’ The visualization of unconditional love in movies risks extreme ickiness.

Isabel and Lucy (© Touchstone Pictures)
Isabel and Lucy-Grace (Florence Clery). ( | © Touchstone Pictures)

The miracle of The Light Between Oceans is that Vikander’s performance, for which she deserves a stack of awards, rises to an emotional crescendo that makes no concession to social conventions. Isabel’s begging Tom to let her keep the baby exerts a force he is incapable of resisting.

Her rapt gaze and submission to an ultimate tenderness is also something to behold (it’s hard not to believe the child is Vikander’s own). The speed with which she turns on Tom when she learns he has sent Hannah an anonymous note – telling her her child is safe and well – might make fathers in the film’s audience fret about their own indispensability to their wives. Believe it, men, baby comes first.