The Light between Oceans

Family drama

Six months on an island by himself is the choice Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) makes as the film opens. He is just back from the war and they need a replacement lighthouse keeper. Why would he choose to live in this isolation? What is he trying to forget from the Great War? Is he punishing himself or escaping from having to see other people?

Is it appropriate to ease your own guilt through the potential destruction of others? What makes one a parent? Is it better to forgive than to hold onto wrongs committed?

These questions are never really answered by the film The Light between Oceans, but off to the island Tom goes. In the days remaining before his departure, he meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), who practically proposes marriage to him. They begin to write letters that arrive with the regularity of the supply boat from the mainland to the lighthouse.

They soon are in love, marry, and move to Janus Island, where they live a life of self-reliance and solitude. Also unanswered is what made Isabel choose so quickly to leave her parents and life on the mainland. She hints at this as she describes being the only one of her siblings left alive after the war and the grief she sees in her parents every day. After all this death, she may want to bring hope back to their lives by having children.

Isabel and Tom flourish on the island, with their daily routines and the magnificent wide-open vistas, the impressive, steep rocky hills rising from the sea, and the protected inlet where they, along with chickens and goats, live.

Derek Cianfrance, the director, captures this life beautifully. Their life seems idyllic, going from the splendor of the sunsets on the water to the powerful motion of the storms. Their happiness is marred only by their inability to have children. Their two stillborn children are buried on the bluff overlooking the house. Isabel takes the viewer from confusion to terror to anguish and finally to numbing grief with each of these stillbirths. It is this pain that lets us join in the conflicted emotions of the pivotal scene of the film. Isabel lies in the grass looking at the two crosses while Tom washes the lighthouse windows. Isabel, over the steady rhythm of the waves, hears a baby crying, but it is Tom who first sees the small boat bobbing on the water. He yells to Isabel and they race toward the beach. Tom wades out to retrieve the boat, which carries a dead man and a crying baby.

Isabel dives into the task of caring for the baby, supplying food, warm clothes, and affection. Tom prepares to send a message to the mainland about the event of the day. Isabel considers the arrival an answer to prayer and suggests they keep the baby and pretend it came a little early from her own pregnancy, which had only recently terminated with their second stillborn. Tom, who throughout the film struggles to be principled, faces this quandary with a stiff upper lip. Support the woman he loves or do what is right? She counters that the baby girl could end up in an orphanage, and that they will never be allowed to adopt given their life on this isolated island. The decision to keep the baby sets the course for the rest of the movie. The consequences do come, but first, as the years pass, we get lulled into thinking it will work. Lucy thrives in their private world of wind, water, and love.

On a visit to the mainland, Tom discovers who the real mother is and begins his guilt-driven journey that could lead to the destruction of them all. Each moral decision seems to leave two more in the wake, until the waves of decisions crash over the life they have created.

The film continues to raise questions about not only the motivations of the main characters but also dilemmas without easy answers. Is it appropriate to ease your own guilt through the potential destruction of others? What makes one a parent? Is it better to forgive than to hold onto wrongs committed? Do you give preference to the needs of your spouse or of the child?

It is here that the film seems to lose pace, with motivations that don’t seem consistent with previous choices and occasionally overdoing the desire to pull us into yet one more melodramatic scene. Vividly displayed is how one decision can totally change the course of life for absolutely everyone involved. It also demonstrates what happens when a film seems to be trapped by the narrative of the original book, which I had enjoyed when I read it.

The amazing acting of Vikander and Fassbender combined with the sublime beauty of the open vistas of the isolated island saves the film from the decision to stay so close to the book’s narrative arc. In fact, that is what makes the film worth seeing, despite the few too many times we are asked to wipe away tears.

PG-13 for thematic material and some sexual content.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.