It's a common lament among those who love old-fashioned Hollywood movies: They just don't make 'em like they used to.
Except sometimes they do. The period drama The Light Between Oceans is a throwback in all the best ways, with its epic themes, grand cinematography, and tragic story of life, love, and loss. Director Derek Cianfrance made his name with gritty realist dramas—Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines —but here he delivers an old-timey moviegoing experience with deep, mythical rhythms.
The year is 1919, and soldier Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) has returned from the trenches of World War I as a fundamentally broken man. Seeking nothing more than peace and isolation, he applies for a job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the western coast of Australia.
He gets the job. “Not a lot of available men these days,” his employer says, and this statement hangs over the film like a shroud. The Great War has killed an entire generation of young men. Death haunts the world. Life has never felt so precious.
This setup proves critical later on. After the horrors of war, Tom fully intends to live and die alone. But when he finds love with Isabel (Alicia Vikander), a young woman from the nearby town, family and children become an unforeseen possibility. Tom and Isabel marry, but after two miscarriages on the island, death and despair intrude once again.
It's at this point that the story gradually descends into the deeper realms of fable. One foggy morning, a baby in a lifeboat washes up on the shore of their island. Is it a gift from God? Isabel thinks so. She is desperate to be a parent, and, in his more anxious way, so is Tom. They make the fateful decision to alter the lighthouse logs, deceive the authorities, and raise the baby as their own.
This turn of events would seem to threaten the film with terminal hokiness. But no—the script, based on the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, is subtly ingenious in its plotting. Cianfrance expertly sequences disclosures to build what is essentially a puzzle. The child's background is revealed, and another woman from town (Rachel Weisz) becomes intimately involved. No one is right; no one is wrong. The film presents us with a seemingly intractable moral dilemma.
As the story and dialogue move the film forward, Cianfrance spins out parallel threads with images, music, and sound. The lighthouse island is a bleak and lonely place, removed from the world, scoured incessantly by relentless winds. The camera itself rattles and sways. The musical score, by Alexandre Desplat, heightens the sorrow and tension. The film leverages old-school cinematic techniques to maximum effect, and it's really a hell of a ride. There's a reason this classic style of filmmaking has endured.
None of this would even register, though, if the performances at the center didn't hold. Happily, we have Fassbender and Vikander on hand, two of our very best screen actors. Fassbender makes an interesting choice by containing Tom's inner turmoil behind a quivering stillness. Vikander has the more kinetic scenes, including a harrowing crisis during a raging storm. Together, they conjure that unknowable Hollywood alchemy of classic romantic drama. These two are genuine movie stars, and I mean that as a totally sincere compliment.
The Light Between Oceans has its faults. There are a few too many scenes of Fassbender looking tortured and staring out to sea. It was probably a bad idea to cast the boat captain role with a guy who looks exactly like the Gorton's Fisherman. And the film's odd coda doesn't really land.
But watch how artfully the filmmakers resolve the central moral dilemma. That intractable problem—so carefully assembled to confound and perplex us—is finally solved by one character, who simply chooses forgiveness. That one choice reverberates backward and forward through time, and if you think back on events, it unlocks an entire hidden structure within the film. Neat trick, that.