The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

Follow Us On:



I Saw the Light

Michael Fassbender
Michael Fassbender
Touchstone Pictures
 133 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by:  Derek Cianfrance
Starring: MIchael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander
The Light Between Oceans

If Nicholas Sparks lived in Australia, he probably would have written a book somewhat like The Light Between Oceans, in terms of subject matter, if not quality. So, it’s not surprising that the movie based on the best-selling novel has some of the same strengths and weaknesses that Sparks’s works do. The biggest difference, though, is a cast that boasts two Oscar-winners and a multiple nominee in the lead roles, and that alone makes the movie worth a look.


Michael Fassbender stars in Oceans as Tom Sherbourne, an Australian soldier returning home after World War I and suffering from a bad case of PTSD (although no one knew at the time what to call it). Tom is wracked with guilt over the death of so many of his compatriots in combat while he survived. He agrees to take what is supposed to be a temporary posting as a lighthouse keeper on remote Janus Island, so named because it’s located on the boundary between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The island is so deserted that it takes the boat from shore half a day to reach it, and there’s little for Sherbourne to do other than light the beacon every night and keep the place in repair from damage caused by the frequent storms.


Tom adjusts to the solitude well, but on a trip to the mainland, he has meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), a woman who has her own cross to bear, having lost two brothers in the war and finding few eligible prospects in the small coastal town. The two start a brief courtship and soon marry, whereupon Isabel moves to Tom’s house on the island and begins making it into a home. She wants to have children, but, with no medical attention immediately available, suffers one miscarriage, which she handles poorly, followed by a second, which she handles even worse. After the second miscarriage, Isabel becomes extremely depressed and suicidal.


Almost literally at that moment, fate intrudes, in the form of a small rowboat that washes up on shore with a dead man and a live baby girl on board. Tom wants to report the missing child to the authorities, but Isabel begs him to let them keep the baby, saying that the child will be raised in foster care on the mainland. Tom reluctantly agrees, and they bury the man and then claim that the girl, whom they name Lucy, is their own child, born prematurely.


For several years, Tom and Isabel maintain their ruse, but when Tom discovers during a trip to the mainland that the child is actually the daughter of a local woman, Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), who was swept out to sea with her father, Tom’s guilt gets the better of him. He doesn’t confess, but he does send a letter to Hannah, leaving enough clues behind so that the authorities can figure out Lucy’s real identity. Tom and Isabel are both arrested, and he is charged with murder, while Isabel is pressured to put all the blame on him.


The setting of The Light Between Oceans may be rural Australia, but this is vintage soap opera material on any continent and in any century. The romance between Tom and Isabel is about as passionate as you’ll see in a PG-13 movie, with the often windswept Janus Island setting bearing some similarities to the landscape in Wuthering Heights. Against this setting, the two lead actors give dynamically contrasting performances.


Fassbender, who has often played cold, distant characters plays one who appears cast in the same mold. Tom Sherbourne has shut himself off from the world and is perfectly willing to live out his life on a desolate island when Isabel comes into that life. But when things go wrong, he blames himself for it all and is more than willing to take all the blame, including being wrongfully convicted of murder, rather than let her suffer. Fassbender has few showy scenes, but it’s on the periphery that his portrayal works best.


Vikander, on the other hand, has the showier role, and at times her Isabel seems a bit too emotional, even before tragedy strikes. Isabel probably is manic-depressive to a certain extent, a condition made worse in her isolation, and she blames Tom for betraying her. Unlike Fassbender’s finely nuanced portrayal, Vikander at times seems a bit out of sync with the rest of the movie, although I think this is primarily due to director Derek Cianfrance not being sure of the direction in which he wants the movie to go.


Technically, The Light Between Oceans is quite well done, with some astounding location photography by Adam Arkapaw and a typical romantic score by Alexandre Desplat. This is as much a movie about the desolate location as anything else; it’s the solitude that largely causes Isabel’s depression and makes the deception possible in the first place. Cianfranco and Arkapaw are able to set the mood perfectly with a number of gripping establishing shots.


The plot twists in The Light Between Oceans can be a bit outlandish, and the film strains credibility at some points, even by soap opera standards, but the film has a genuine emotional pull to it. Somewhat surprisingly, given his unquestioned good looks and acting skill, Michael Fassbender has had few traditional leading man roles in his career. Ironically, the closest he’s come, at least since he became a marketable star, was as Magneto in X-Men: Apocalypse, a similarly tragic turn that got lost in the midst of a typically overblown superhero extravaganza. He recalls Ralph Fiennes in his younger days, an actor who excels at playing flawed characters in doomed romantic scenarios. Needless to say, this type of performance works perfectly in The Light Between Oceans. The melodrama here may often be predictable, but the delivery is superb.

In this scene, Alicia Vikander tries to learn more about Michael Fassbender.

Read other reviews of The Light Between Oceans:


The Light Between Oceans (2016) on IMDb