Every year there’s a film that sneaks its way through theaters without much commercial fanfare and then makes a strong showing in Oscar nominations.
In 2016 that film is assuredly “The Light Between Oceans,” a picturesque, romantic period drama featuring reigning Best Supporting Actress winner Alicia Vikander and Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender along with a terrific supporting performance from Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz.
Based on the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, “The Light Between Oceans” follows Tom (Fassbender), a single man returning from war to take post on a remote lighthouse and falls in love with a young Australian woman (Vikander) living on a nearby island. Though it’s fair to call the film a romance, Tom and Isabel’s courtship isn’t at the center of their story. Rather, Tom and Isabel’s struggle to form a family while living away from civilization proves to be the catalyst for their emotionally gripping tale.
This is a movie best viewed with fresh eyes. More so than many other films, divulging too much about the plot (or watching the film’s trailer for that matter) may prove to be catastrophic for viewers’ ultimate enjoyment of “The Light Between Oceans.”
It’s hard to play stoicism in a romance much better than Fassbender does as Tom, a man shattered by the things he saw and did as a soldier in the Western front of World War I. His performance is the near perfect definition of melancholy early in the film. The way Tom is transformed – brought back to life, as it were – by Isabel over the course of the film is remarkable. A nomination will likely elude Fassbender this year given a number of much flashier performances yet to hit the big screen this fall, but the performance is definitely worthy of consideration.
While Tom anchors the narrative structure of the film and takes a majority of the screen time, “The Light Between Oceans” is Vikander’s movie and her performance is beautifully crushing. It’s impossible to keep your eyes off her Isabel, emotionally mesmerizing and layered beyond compare. Her scenes of grieving loss toward the latter part of the film’s first hour are devastatingly poignant.
In a film filled with highlights, Vikander is the best thing about “The Light Between Oceans” and it’s not particularly close. Another Oscar nomination feels inevitable at this point and a second straight win for the Swedish actress wouldn’t be out of line either.
Weisz doesn’t make an appearance in the film until the second hour as the relationship between Tom and Isabel is given time to bloom. But once the former Oscar winner hits the screen as a grieving widow, Weisz holds her own against strong efforts from Vikander and Fassbender. It’s difficult to spend too much time on Weisz’s performance without revealing too many plot points, but her work is often exceptional and just occasionally too stiff for the overall tone of the film.
Director Derek Cianfrance moves “The Light Between Oceans” at a much slower, leisurely pace than his dynamic previous films “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines.” Yet despite the slow, two-hour build to the movie’s third act crescendo, “The Light Between Oceans” maintains constantly entrancing cinema, thanks in large part to the masterful performances Cianfrance is able to draw from his lead actors.
The film is additionally bolstered by Adam Arkapaw’s stunning cinematography, which Cianfrance uses to frame the beginning and end of each scene.
Unfortunately, “The Light Between Oceans” was released far too early in 2016 for major consideration in Best Picture races come awards season, though Vikander’s standout work will remain firmly in the Oscar hunt. Regardless, Cianfrance’s largely riveting melodrama will appeal to fans of period cinema and of the lead actors.
It wouldn’t come as any surprise to see “The Light Between Oceans” end 2016 as one of the year’s 10 best movies and those willing to take a chance on the film in theaters shouldn’t be disappointed.