Director Derek Cianfrance attempts to bring the emotional rawness of his previous films and influences to the melodrama genre with The Light Between Oceans, but he never quite pulls off the feat.
The filmmaker's debut, Blue Valentine, was a disintegrating relationship drama that worked thanks to Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams' wonderfully lived-in performances. He followed that with The Place Beyond the Pines, an ambitious if not entirely successful attempt to blend a gritty genre film with emotion, resulting in perhaps the only crime saga to end with Bon Iver.
Now Cianfrance has made a full-fledged melodrama, albeit one influenced by the work of director John Cassavetes. Yet despite his talent, the strong cast and gorgeous cinematography, the film lands perilously close to mimicking the work of John's son, The Notebook director Nick Cassavetes.
Based on M.L. Stedman's novel, the film follows WWI soldier Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), who takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island. Though he initially seeks the solitude, he finds himself attracted to Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), a woman who lives in the closest town.
The two fall in love, marry and unsuccessfully try to have children. Soon after one such attempt, a rowboat comes ashore containing a dead man and living baby.
Tom wants to report the situation, but Isabel convinces him to keep the child, arguing it will be sent off to an orphanage otherwise. The three live in domestic bliss for a while, but the past eventually rears its head, particularly with the introduction of a woman (Rachel Weisz) tied to the incident.
Some may see the term melodrama itself as an insult, but the genre can pack an emotional wallop if it's done well. Besides the classic work of filmmakers like Douglas Sirk and David Lean, there's the films of Carol director Todd Haynes or Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea, also starring Weisz.
Yet those films were able to find a raw emotional nerve that The Light Between Oceans doesn't locate. It feels curiously stiff, even as its plot takes some drastic turns.
The film's first half is its stronger one, as it focuses on the relationship between Tom and Isabel. With the beautiful natural cinematography of Adam Arkapaw, soaring classical score and scattershot snapshots of domestic life, it somewhat recalls Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.
If the patient tone makes some audience members restless, it's preferable to the film's second half, where plot developments suddenly come in rapid succession. Perhaps the events felt more grounded in the novel, where there's more time to breathe than one hour of a movie, yet it feels unnatural here.
By the film's final moments, it resembles nothing more than The Notebook. It also features what may be the least convincing aging of a movie character ever.
The three lead actors all turn in fine work, particularly Weisz, adding to the talent that's clearly on display throughout. Sometimes the work of strong collaborators just doesn't fully come together, and that's the case here.
It seemed somewhat puzzling to release The Light Between Oceans at the start of September, immediately after the summer movie months but too early for awards movie season. Yet it ultimately proves fitting for the film — too high-minded to work as a blockbuster and not substantial enough to succeed as a prestige movie.
Contact Jimmy Geurts at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3402. Follow @JimmyGeurts.