The Light Between Oceans, a plaintive coo of a film based on a novel of the same name, opens Friday at area theaters. It stars Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, and that's all you need to know.
Recall, if you can, the political-intrigue thriller The Ides of March. Before it came out in 2011, the greatest excitement was not over Ryan Gosling or George Clooney, the film's leading men, but over the actors playing the opposing strategists: Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. At the time, Giamatti and Hoffman were regarded as two of Hollywood's finest actors — in the olden days, they would have been called character actors — and watching them square off was destined to be akin to watching chess masters or heavyweights (and it was). Similar deal here, except that Fassbender and Vikander are the beating heart and mournful soul of the film.
Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) is assigned, in the somber aftermath of World War I, to tend a lighthouse off the western coast of Australia. The exact location remains unmentioned (and unclear) in the film, and may leave you curious enough to look it up afterwards, but its remoteness and isolation are what's important. Sherbourne is a gloomy, taciturn chap, hardened by the war's atrocities, and he's expecting to find comfort in the solitude of his post. But in the nearest port town, Sherbourne meets the ebullient Isabel (Vikander) and finds comfort in this woman who manages to soften him.
The film's dramatic arc concerns Isabel's infertility. Not one but two grisly miscarriages are depicted on screen, and both are tough to watch. In the first, Isabel is alone in the island cottage while Tom's up in the lighthouse. A violent storm descends (a mirror of her mood, indeed). Calling for her husband, Isabel climbs the precarious wooden steps to the lighthouse — a full-body effort — and bangs on the iron door. But in the foul weather, Tom never hears her. It's an incredible moment.
One windswept afternoon, a rowboat drifts ashore. A live baby girl is inside, along with (presumably) her dead father. Against Tom's better judgement, Tom and Isabel decide not to report the incident in the lighthouse log and to raise the infant as their own. But when, some years later, they learn the truth of their daughter's identity, they must decide how to proceed and who will face the costs. It should go without saying that the legal ramifications pale in comparison to the moral ones.
The story and its tragedies are, in the end, mellower than might be expected. Though the sadness is often extreme, it never feels glamorized or overwrought. And that's primarily a function of Fassbender and Vikander, each huge, versatile, individual talents who have found someone their own size with whom to tussle onscreen. Vikander is, of course, fresh off an Academy Award for her marvelous turn in The Danish Girl, and will also play Lara Croft in a rebooted Tomb Raider in 2018. Fassbender, who reprised his role as Magneto in this summer's forgettable X-Men: Apocalypse, should still be riding high on his exquisite title-character work in Steve Jobs. As Isabel and Tom, they reaffirm their status as master craftsmen. Their brisk, giddy courtship; their tender and tense moments on the island; their conflicted parenting — it's all frankly beautiful to behold.
The Light Between Oceans is directed by Derek Cianfrance, whose searing 2010 debut Blue Valentine was undercut by his ambitious, messy second effort The Place Beyond the Pines. Here, he returns to form in what might be his sweet spot: tortured love stories. And his ambitions have by no means waned: At two hours and 12 minutes, the film spans many years and has, after some easy armchair diagnostics, the exact pacing and period-piece production of a late-season awards contender. My sense is that this one won't be thunderously praised by critics, and it certainly won't wow at the box-office, but rest assured that it's an accomplished drama with deep wells of emotion in store.