The Light Between Oceans
Melodrama: Emotion thick as tar, candor thin as ether. Its dramaturgy: An ocean, a tended lighthouse, an island, some effigies of gorgeous people. Melodrama has always lied, and just as typically, wrung you at the punchline for truth. It evokes by score, or by the ripples of tides and the intensity of a storm, not by a truthful depiction of love, which is all too storied, naive, and saccharine to relate. But it can somehow be believed, like film has done so long for fantasy, and it can be felt in setting, color, and light.
You know what to feel in The Light Between Oceans, not by familiarity, but by manipulation — by the basic exercises of film: cutting, color, composition, and movement. Film has always lied in this way. Seamless worlds are cheated together by locations filmed on opposite ends of the earth, and ‘real’ time is fabricated by light consistency and cuts. So too, film cheats a connection between a lighthouse keeper (Michael Fassbender) and a naive nymphet (Alicia Vikander) ripe from parental dependancy. That's entirely an archaic and troublesome trope, leveraged by a troublesomely convincing way with the craft. You know that when the ocean reflects red and ripples tranquil, that love is peaked, and you know that when the first storm comes so too does the tragedy.
Later, a soft fog hovers over the island. It means different things for different characters. The drama develops a complexity. Need you know the details? For its first hour and a half, Cianfrance does something special. But then it gets confused. It thinks it knows its characters as people. It doesn’t, they are vessels. Proof? Watch Cianfrance fill their emptiness with his usual themes of cause and effect and familial friction. If happiness exists in one home, it must draw from another. It can’t exist in both at a given time. It’ll bounce that ball back and forth in its final third, sometimes with great finesse and venom, but at the cost of the priceless spell it spun. The illusion is lifted, and its lies revealed.
It nearly ascends its soap roots with minimalism, before a hokey attempt to close without the suds. Some bewildering character stubbornness, police intervention, and a stupefying flash forward threaten to collapse the entire piece, corroding what good there was, and rending whatever high tearjerking hopes they promised. Cianfrance gets tangled in the same ideas he explored in his last film (The Place Beyond The Pines)... And the opportunity to do so is likely what drew him to this subject matter in the first place. He likes this idea of two clans being destined to affect one another. It’s what’s supposed to justify Fassbender’s brooding affect in jail. The joy he and his family had must be passed on now... Because of destiny? Because he feels guilty that he survived the war? Because Cianfrance believes it to be true and so the character must too?
The purity of the melodrama becomes tainted at this point. Notice I’ve only mentioned the plot in reference to its final third. It becomes distractingly apparent late in the film. It concludes like a hammy paperback romance, throwing the plot in all directions carelessly, distractingly, and without great clarity. Why do the police do this? Why does this character do that? Why do we jump forward? And would things really end up the way they did? We’ve questioned the spell, and the lying melodrama succeeds or fails on sustaining that illusion.
But, the hex holds long enough that we’re more forgiving in the comedown. See it.