Friday, 11 November 2016

The Light Between Oceans

Australian movies made for an international market never seem to hit the mark for the intended audience. Recent efforts like The Water Diviner and The Dressmaker were flops despite having big names like Russell Crowe and Kate Winslet. However, when you bring an outsider in to show their perspective on Australian life, it always seems a lot more effective. Add a couple of high profile international stars and you may have a winner.

Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) has returned home to Western Australia after World War I. In order to find some solitude after the horrors of war, he gets a job as a lighthouse keeper on an island of the coast. On one of his trips back to the mainland, he meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander) and slowly he falls in love with her, despite being separated by the sea. Eventually they wed and she moves to the island with him. Even though it is a harsh environment, they build a life together and are happy until Isabel miscarries not one but two pregnancies. All hope seems lost for them when a boat drifts ashore with a dead man and a baby girl. Isabel convinces Tom that they keep they child rather than telling anyone what happened and they soon return to life like nothing has happened. When they return to the mainland to show off their new child, Tom meets Hannah (Rachel Weisz), whom he learns lost her baby daughter and husband at sea a few years earlier. Soon Tom is wracked with grief and indecision about what to do.

Derek Cianfrance has always been an actor's director. His last two movies have been performance driven and The Light Between Oceans is no different. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander are two actors at the top of their game. They, along with Rachel Weisz, all fall into stride with fantastic Aussie accents, one that isn't the easiest to do. Granted, that isn't what makes their performances good, it's just an added bonus. What makes their performances so great is their pure commitment to the emotions that are necessary. Tom is supposed to be a character haunted by his experiences in the war and Fassbender masterfully pulls that off. His guilt is entirely believable and at times you felt the pain he had in keeping his secret. Vikander and Weisz are also great at tearing the emotions out from the audience. Both women have their legitimate claim to raising their daughter but the pain in having to potentially give her up is too much. There are three great performances from Aussie veterans Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson and Gary MacDonald that really form a good backbone to the cast.

There are a few missteps in terms of telling the story however. Cianfrance is definitely a fan of an easily identifiable three act structure movie. First, Isabel and Tom get to know each other, then they get married and find the baby, finally the guilt and decision to tell the truth. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the movie a tad slower and seems sloppy. There is a lot of clunky dialogue, like when Jack Thompson's character explains in a rather heavy handed way what happened to Hannah's husband, something the film has subtly hinted at using the unique cinema technique of editing. There is an early montage of letter writing between Tom and Isabel as well that is rather dull and expository.

I guess the reason I really like this movie because of the way it's an Australian film without being one. Australian movies tend to shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to international audiences because you can never beat Crocodile Dundee and that's what they want. It takes an outsider to show the rest of the world what an Aussie movie can be and it takes an actor like Fassbender to show that people really can do our accent. Other than that, it's an emotionally raw epic that tugs at the heartstrings. Especially that epilogue scene.

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