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Film review: The Light Between Oceans

Film & TV

Australia’s natural splendour is in turns stark, striking and terrifying in The Light Between Oceans.

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Off the coast of Western Australia in the early 1920s, a lighthouse keeper and his wife find a baby washed ashore in a lifeboat, and decide to raise her as their own. Featuring earnest performances from Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, this is a simmering drama about sacrifice, penitence and the inescapable effects of one’s actions.

Fassbender (Prometheus, Macbeth) and Vikander (Ex Machina) are fine as the feverishly love-struck unit Tom and Isabel. Though the leads hail from the UK and Europe – along with co-star Rachel Weisz – Australian screen veterans such as Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown and Garry McDonald round out the Antipodean contingent.

American director Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines, Blue Valentine) has an arresting visual style – one that suits this romantic, dramatic, even histrionic love story. Like his previous films, it centres on a tumultuous relationship, now transported to a period setting where the populace wrestles with the repercussions of World War I. Unlike the loosely written and unrehearsed Blue Valentine, Cianfrance’s latest is palpably scripted, with his screenplay based on the novel by M. L. Stedman.

Adaptation is a tricky business, and Cianfrance does his utmost to capture the emotional scale of the source material. To take pleasure in the film’s premise, you must suspend disbelief and accept some extraordinary coincidences. If not, you’ll be left incredulous as the film wanders into melodramatic territory, particularly as the piece edges over the two-hour mark.

The glacial pace fosters an atmosphere of remote tranquillity at first, which gives way to foreboding in the film’s latter acts. Panoramic shots of windswept rural landscapes are perfectly scenic but lose impact with repetition (of which there’s plenty). Production design is wistfully elegant, while the blustery soundscape suggests the inevitable triumph of nature over nurture – one of the film’s key themes.

Impressive images and precise style can’t make up for inauthentic emotion, due largely to the trite dialogue, and in spite of some thoughtful performances (affected accents notwithstanding). Fair to say The Light Between Oceans is a sentimental tear-forcer.

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