The Place Beyond the Pines, a striking, generational crime saga of failed fathers and sons. His new film, The Light Between Oceans, maintains his twin fixations on matrimony and family, striving to wring sweat from your brow and tears from your eyes.
It does not quite succeed. The movie is too deliberate, too mannered, to
incite the response it so plainly seeks to provoke. But there is still
much to admire in The Light Between Oceans, beginning with its
superlative craftsmanship. This is a gorgeous film, with magnificent
cinematography from Adam Arkapaw, the talented lenser who gave us the
unforgettable tracking shot in True Detective, as well as the ethereal beauty of Jane Campion's Top of the Lake.
Here, capitalizing on Cianfrance's preference for shooting on location,
he delivers frame after frame of stunning naturalism: gentle sunrises
peeking over a hillside, waves crashing onto rocky shoals, ships slicing
through the mist like wooden blades. These images are accompanied by
the tinkling piano and whispering woodwinds that could only be
orchestrated by the great Alexandre Desplat. It's all rather lovely.
This could be a sign of tedium as well as craft. The level of aural and pictorial grandeur found in The Light Between Oceans
is liable to brand it a prestige picture, the type of handsome period
piece that courts awards-season voters with indecent salesmanship but
that lacks true artistic vision. Yet while it features a trio of
Academy-fêted actors, the film's narrative is more modest in scope than
your typical Oscar bait. Taking place between the wars, its opening
finds Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a soldier haunted by the
horrors of the front, agreeing to serve as a lighthouse keeper at Janus,
a tiny island off the coast of Australia. It's a lonely job, but that's
fine with the taciturn Tom, at least until he meets Isabel (Alicia
Vikander, atoning for Jason Bourne), the plucky daughter of a local merchant. The inevitable happens, and quickly—perhaps too quickly. The Light Between Oceans
postures itself as a grand romance, but the union between Isabel and
Tom feels constructed rather than organic, diminishing the movie's
stakes even as it gradually revs up its melodramatic engine.
Dramatizing this butterfly effect is harder than it sounds, or at least
Cianfrance makes it seem that way. His screenplay, which is based on a
novel by M.L. Stedman, is his first based on previously existing
material. It shows. Overcompensating for the languor of its opening act,
the movie's final third is muddled and confused, either lurching
forward in time or coming to a stultifying standstill. The same is true
on a micro level; some scenes end too quickly, while others play on for
too long. Throughout, you can perceive Cianfrance's panic, as though he
was unsure of how to condense the novel, so he frantically picked random
passages here and there but neglected to thread them together. It makes
sense that Cianfrance was attracted to this material—as with Blue Valentine, it contemplates a marriage in crisis, and as with The Place Beyond the Pines, it touches on the immutable bond between parent and child—but he struggles to match his broader ideas to this specific story.
shows again here a preternatural gift to articulate deep swells of
feeling without resorting to weepy histrionics. When Cianfrance simply
trains his camera on her, The Light Between Oceans achieves the primal power that it clearly strains for but otherwise fails to generate.
Indeed, Vikander's performance makes one sympathize with Rachel Weisz,
who finds herself hamstrung by the confines of her one-note role as
Hannah, a bereaved mother. Yet it is Hannah who best encapsulates The Light Between Oceans. Delicate, decorous, and helpless,
she is the perfect symbol for this earnest, well-meaning film, a movie
about a lighthouse that, for all its beauty, seems lost in a fog.