Sunday 27 November 2016

The Light Between Oceans (2016) - Movie Review

The plot: Lighthouse keeper Tom (Michael Fassbender) and his wife Isabel (Alicia Vikander) find a child on a marooned boat that was washed ashore. They take the child in as their own, naming her Lucy, and for many years she is raised without incident. However, a chance encounter with local Hannah (Rachel Weisz) reveals that the child they found was hers. They know that the child should return to her birth mother, but in the time that they’ve known, they have grown too attached for this to be that simple.

The pacing in this story is kind of all over the place. I specify this because it can often feel like large spans of time will pass right over the audience’s heads without much issue, and the film doesn’t do that fantastic a job at making it clear within its own narrative. Sure, there is a generally established sense of progression when it comes to the events of the story, but how much passes between the key moments can feel abrupt at times.

Then again, I doubt that anyone could have made the pacing here feel pitch-perfect because there is an awful lot that transpires over this film’s two hours and some change. The trailer highlights the conflict between Tom/Isabel and Hannah in terms of Lucy’s parentage, but that only kicks in at about the halfway point. Surrounding it is a lot of character building for all the persons involved, and while I may shake a shortened stick at how the timeline is depicted, there’s no single scene here that feels like it isn’t warranted. Quite frankly, when dealing with a story this emotionally complex, they needed all the build-up they could muster.

This film has an almost supernatural sense of character, as all three persons involved are incredibly well-defined both within themselves and in relation to each other. Tom has emotional baggage related to his involvement in war, and that history concerning his involvement in the lives of others (specifically, in ending the lives of others) gives him a very strong connection with his morality. Fassbender made his first real mainstream mark portraying morally complex characters, and that experience serves him well here as he delivers the numerous conflicting emotions he goes through near-flawlessly.

Isabel has essentially had the world beat her to ground in terms of maternity, and that combined with her relationship with Tom results in someone whose actions should by all rights be despicable. However, because of what we learn about her and what we physically see her endure, I doubt there is a single rational person who would be able to out-and-out vilify her for what she did. Vikander easily gives the best performance of the film, as you can see every single action that happens to her and she herself makes have a profound effect on her throughout the film’s run time.

Hannah unfortunately gets the lesser development of the three, but she also shows a heart-stopping amount of emotional affectation as a result of everything that has happened. Even with the sympathy garnered by the Sherbournes, it is near-impossible not to feel for her as well. As a result of all of this, this character study ends up making the key conflict of the film hit that much harder because, along with the situation being tragic in and of itself, it is also not so easy to discern who, if anyone, is in the right.

This film’s setting of Australia ends up adding a lot to the film’s main conflict, as we have a rather ugly history when it comes to severely complicating issues of parentage through outright stealing children; the Stolen Generation has long been an open wound in our nation’s history. However, more than anything else, the custodial conflict ends up playing just one part of the film’s far bigger contextual ambitions, that being a look into the duelling forces of love and grief and how they can ultimately affect people. It is because of one’s love for another that a person can achieve incredible things, both good and bad, and it is because of one’s own grief (or even fear of grief) that a person can be shaped to do that which is depicted here.

As we see Tom, Isabel and Hannah get put through the ringer of both these forces, they make decisions that are sometimes commendable, sometimes reprehensible and always understandable because, at the end of the day, they are unmistakably human in their mindsets. Because of our innate understanding of what these actions ultimately are, and yet knowing full well why such actions are being taken, this film is a non-stop emotional tidal wave that keeps washing over the audience. No easy answers are given, and rarely if ever will characters try to take that route, and what results from that is a conflicted but very emotionally resonant film.

All in all, you’d be hard-pressed to find a film that squeezes the heart as intently or as frequently as this. Through the outstanding acting talent, utilising three great leads alongside a slew of weathered Aussie talent, and the film’s utter disregard for anything resembling the easy way out of what is ultimately a very divisive issue, we get a film that doesn’t so much treat its audience like adults as it does treat them, along with the characters, as humans who will naturally have their own stances on what takes place. And the scary thing is that it never makes any judgement calls on anyone, because it knows as well as we do that no action takes place without a damn good reason for it.

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