I still remember the first time I saw Blue Valentine. The romantic tragedy film directed by Derek Cianfrance that shows the final days of a doomed marriage intercut with the couple’s auspicious first few dates. That film made such an impression on me that I’ve felt indebted to Cianfrance. He clearly had a perspective on relationships that I valued. Even if the rest of his career was filled with duds, I felt I owed it to myself to give them all a fair chance just in case they had an inkling of his first film which I consider one of the best. So far Cianfrance has only made two other films– The Place Beyond the Pines in 2012 and now the newly released The Light Between Oceans and it appears a theme is emerging. All three films focus on families, doomed characters and specifically relationships that can’t be sustained. In an academic sense, I can dissect and understand why Cianfrance might have been drawn to The Light Between Oceans (originally a novel written in 2012) but it becomes immediately obvious that a lot was getting lost in translation. The film feels like a book adaptation where you have to hope the original text was written well, because it’s clear the plot wasn’t what drew readers’ interest. Which is to say The Light Between Oceans is a terrible movie. It’s so bad, I can’t remember the last time I hated a movie this much.
The Light Between Oceans is about a lighthouse keeper named Tom Sherbourne who returns from World War I to work in isolation on an island off the coast of Western Australia and think about his life. Before traveling to the island, Tom has dinner with the owners of the property who just so happen to have a daughter named Isabel who is beautifully single and annoyingly attracted to him. After a few months of doing the job, Tom returns to the mainland to accept a multi-year contract. While on the mainland he goes on a date with Isabel where they establish that the only persons allowed on the island are the lighthouse keeper and his family. So in order to progress their relationship and the plot they decide to get married immediately. Tom and Isabel begin living on the lighthouse island and try to start a family but Isabel has difficulty maintaining pregnancies which strains their relationship. This all comes to a head when a small boat washes ashore with a dead man and an infant child. The couple are conflicted with the choice of keeping the infant as their own or reporting it to the authorities.
The most obvious issue of The Light Between Oceans is its glacier pacing made obvious by the fact that the summary paragraph you just read takes over an hour to unfold in the actual movie. Make no mistake, I didn’t skip over some details or leave out subplots that you’ll learn to appreciate when you see it for yourself. There’s really nothing going on. The film fills the time with its obsession for long fading transitions, stoic shots of landscapes and generally employs the rule of thumb “the less that’s going on, the more time spent on it.” Though even the scenes with some amount of drama or point go on for way too long. As the film unfolds it’s hard to pinpoint, because the entire thing is so dreadfully boring that any semblance of emotion feels like the pulse of a fading loved one, but in retrospect it’s all bland. Did they have to spend fifteen to twenty minutes to establish one piece of information? How much time was spent looking at landscapes? How long has this movie been going on for? When will it end? All of these questions filled my head constantly.
It’s almost possible to forget that you’re suffering through a tortuous creation exempt of the passage of time but at some point Rachel Weisz pops up on screen and you remember that her name was third in the opening credits. The hopelessness I experienced when I saw her character and realized the movie was nowhere close to being finished would fit right in with the gloomy melodrama that permeates The Light Between Oceans.
It doesn’t help that the two main characters don’t carry the time very well while they’re filling the first half of the film. Tom is a taciturn, man of few words. This might make an excellent book character where there is descriptive language describing sceneries or internal thoughts on various issues, but in a film all we get is a lot of blank stares. Isabel is more expressive, trying to make up for Tom’s lacking emotions, but there’s not enough there to generate an interesting moment. This is yet another romantic film where you can’t list a single character trait of either character or even why they like each other. You can’t even characterize anything about their relationship. It merely exists as a means to tell some nonsensical story. Films about relationships are frequently dense with relatable experiences or jumping off points to discuss other tangential topics. This film is devoid of any of those. It spends its time setting up individual plot points to propel the story forward, but its destination isn’t a place anyone wants to go.
I’ve never had a crisis of wanting to take someone’s baby as my own, but if I did I can’t imagine I would act like any of the characters in The Light Between Oceans. Isabel’s desire for a baby of her own is perhaps the most understandable. The film dabbles in showing how Isabel justifies her actions and it might have been interesting to see how far she’d go with that, but the films goes full soap opera instead. Individual characters flip their views completely from one day to the next for no real reason. Parents of various years of attachment decide interchangeably that they absolutely must have a child or maybe they don’t need a child. It’s very dramatic, but none of the emotion sticks because you’re drowned in the idiocy of it all. It’s impossible to believe that anyone can discard their attachment for a child the way they would an ugly hat.
To make matters worse, the film ends with a picturesque fairy tale ending with an accompanying montage that I would call insulting to the viewer’s intelligence. The entire film is an onslaught of high emotion and life-changing ramifications. Every single scene runs with undertones of bleakness and loss. If you could describe The Light Between Oceans in one word “sad,” “depressing,” or “miserable,” would do. Then the film recuts the very scenes that were dreadfully depressing the first time around, but slaps a shiny filter and happy music on them, as if the audience forgot what movie they just watch, pretending it was all a fun time.
It would be very easy to repeat sentence summaries of scenes that occur in The Light Between Oceans and reveal it as the most moronic film in recent memory. Its plotline is guided more by emotion than thought and its characters’ views are dictated by convenience rather than what they’d actually think. It’s a smoothie made with the emotional intelligence of daytime soap operas and the pacing of a Terrence Malick film. The film has no themes, no depth and no point. There are technically moments of this film that are not complete trash but to mention them would detract from the fact that this film is valueless.