The Light Between the Oceans ****/*
Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance (from the M.L. Stedman novel)
Starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
133’; United Kingdom /New Zealand/USA 2016
WWI survivor Tom Sherbourne takes the job as custodian of the Janus lighthouse, a hundred miles from the Australian coast. But before leaving, he meets young Isabel, who later agrees to become his wife and follows him into his solitary life. But after two miscarriages, Isabel’s dream of having a family seems to be dead.One day a rowing boat arrives at the island pushed by the currents: on it, a dead man and an infant baby girl, whom the two decide to keep and raise as their own. But destiny has other surprises and painful choices in store for them.
Forgiving is easy, because you just have to do it once. That’s one of the most meaningful lessons from this strong toned drama, set against the background of the powerful wilderness of the Australian coast and a small island lost between two oceans (Indian and Southern). Director and screenwriter Derek Cianfrance adapts a good novel from a few years ago and immerses himself in the remote world of post-WWI Australia. It is still a wild country in many ways, both far and close (because of the numerous human casualties) to the war that bloodied the European trenches. This past, though not shown on screen, is key to understanding many of the events of the movie, but most of all the psychology of the characters in it.
Tom Sherbourne is a man wounded by war, not in his body but in his spirit: the death of many of his fellow soldiers, his own sometimes puzzling survival, the hard choices he had to face, all of this persuaded him that the isolated life of a lighthouse custodian would at least kept him from hurting other human beings. From her side, Isabel is the last surviving daughter of a once happy family (her brothers perished in the war), and her extraordinary vitality hides a deep sense of loss and pain.
They are two individuals who discover in each other the possibility of rebirth, inside the solitary and extreme space of an island where they become their own version of Adam and Eve. The impossibility of conceiving a son, of rebuilding a family broken by the past by projecting it into the future, renews the old tragedy and sets the foundation for a new drama. Because getting what you most long for in a miracle-like fashion, also means taking it away from whoever has an even stronger right over such a gift.
The drama is sharper since the people involved in it are fundamentally good, and because time renders complex (when not impossible) the unraveling of affections and establishing of guilt without severing the ties holding together the lives of the human beings involved.
It’s a compassionate look that Cianfrance turns on each of his own characters, one that tries to let us understand them before we judge them. The Light Between the Oceans is a movie that, even in the almost classical polish of its production, faces pain and frustrated passions without shame, and asks from the audience a participation free of any cynicism. Precisely for that reason it is going to be appreciated by the public more than the critics.
It’s a movie imbued with a simple but deep religious spirit, where the compass of a complex ethical path is held for the most part by male figures, while women are torn between the violence of feelings and a powerful and blind maternal instinct.
In the midst of all of this, there’s the figure of the contended baby, bearing in her names (Lucy for “Light”, and Grace) a mysterious fate, one that will be revealed as dramatic, but in the end positive and merciful. Lucy-Grace is most of all a gift, never to be possessed, but always and only entrusted, and the legacy of this gift will be mostly one of love and forgiveness.
Problematic elements: a couple of short sexual scenes.