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.
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 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.
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.