"The Light Between Oceans" is a pretentious, manipulative, anti-art exercise in pseudo-art. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is a veteran returning from World War I to Australia. He gets a job as a lighthouse keeper at Janus Rock. He meets and falls in love with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander).
Stop right there. Tom's last name is "Sherbourne," pronounced as "share born." Isabel's last name is "Graysmark," as in "gray area." Janus is the ancient god with two faces; January is named after him. He looks in two directions.
Are you taking notes yet? You need to be taking notes. There will be a quiz. Tom's last name is "share born" because he will share a child with another woman. Isabel's last name is "gray mark" because she is meant to get us thinking about the gray areas in moral questions. Janus Rock is named after Janus because the story is meant to get us thinking about how there is more than one way to look at a question.
Are you bored yet? Do you yet see how you are being manipulated and talked down to? Wait, there's more.
Isabel suffers miscarriages. At the exact moment that she is weeping over the grave of one of her miscarriages, a rowboat washes up. It contains a living newborn and a dead man.
At this point I have to ask, how stupid do Stedman and director Derek Cianfrance think we are? This key scene is utterly implausible. Have a healthy, live neonate and a dead man in a rowboat ever washed up on the shore of an ocean where a mother, at that moment, is grieving a miscarriage? Yes, yes, we all know that movies are not real. The point is that movies have art at their service, and they use art to make us either believe, or not care about, implausible plot elements.
The film makes no attempt to explain why or how a husband and father would leave his wife, put his newborn baby into a rowboat, and head out onto open ocean. It never attempts to explain how the husband died and the newborn baby survived. Think about it. Did a seagull drop a very heavy clam shell that hit the father in the head but missed the child? We know seagulls are obnoxious, but are they really that malicious? Is their aim that expert?
It is later explained that the father was German – the very people Tom had killed in WW I – and a victim of prejudice, prejudice he was trying to escape. In a rowboat? On the ocean? With a newborn baby? Leaving his wife on shore? No. This plot element serves one purpose only. To lecture the audience about what a bad, bad thing prejudice is, including prejudice against Germans, the folks we all, since WW II, love to hate, especially when we are at the movies. And Tom killed Germans!!!
Tom and Isabel bury the dead man and keep the baby, never telling anyone of this kidnapping. Then there are more utterly implausible plot elements, in which every character does several things that completely defy any expectation of them the flimsy plot has managed to build up in the viewer. It is painfully clear that these stick figure characters exist only as an attempt to make the book's author and the film's director look like deep people asking big, heavy questions.
Michael Fassbender is an interesting actor but he is given nothing to do here. He gazes at the ocean and looks sad. That's it. His facial expression does not change for two hours. Alicia Vikander similarly can't bring Isabel to life. Fassbender looks about 45 and Vikander looks 15. Weird. Although, after this film, they became a real life couple, they don't strike any onscreen sparks.
Cianfrance's direction is flatfooted. I hoped for spectacular ocean and sky imagery. No luck. The sky is often flat gray. The ocean shots are not innovative or mesmerizing. While watching the film I reflected that landlubbers like me find the sound of waves crashing on shore to be soothing. I realized that if I lived on Janus Rock I'd come to find that sound oppressive, in that one cannot escape from it. Cianfrance does nothing with this contrast between a civilized person's assessment of a remote island, and the feelings of someone more or less condemned to solitary confinement on such a place.
The narrative structure of this film is simply wrong. We see Tom return to Australia, apply for the lighthouse job, meet Isabel, meet Isabel again and propose marriage to her, Isabel get pregnant, Isabel have a miscarriage, etc. Anyone who has seen the trailer for the film knows that all these scenes are merely buildup to the ultimate showdown over who gets custody of the shipwrecked baby. The entire first hour of the film should have been eliminated. The film should have begun with Tom, Isabel, and the baby confronting their ultimate fate. That's where the drama of the film is. That's how we could have gotten to know, and care about, the characters.
Ironically, a narrative that pretends to be deep and important is constructed in such a manner that we are never allowed access to Tom's, Isabel's, or other key characters deepest thoughts, emotions, and motivations. The small moments of conversation, court testimony, facial expressions, body language, clinging or rejecting, that could have made this story come alive are never seen. All we get are stick figures moving around Stedman's and Cianfrance's pompous ambition.