The "period drama" genre is not the most popular in cinema. And Light (at 132 minutes) often seems to be wandering off its harsh intentions, hinted at in the beginning. But there is classical cinematic romance too, and Cianfrance’s stealthy approach gradually seduces you — leading you to feel almost too crushingly a vision of young love in a remote and lonely lighthouse.
Then, somewhere off Australia, physical and emotional remoteness become a heartbreaking spectacle of love gone wrong, and of the pain that comes from wrong choices. But the brilliance of the main players transforms a windswept universe into suffocating intimacy.
Light is for those prepared to allow nuances to infuse their evaluation of the material: it’s no blockbuster.
The land and seascape mise-en-scène is almost pristine: a world not for men or women. The remote rock is unutterably bleak, subject to oceanic tides and storms. Before Tom (Fassbender) takes up his duties as keeper of the flame, its solitude has driven at least one man mad. But after four years of war on the Western Front (the time is shortly after World War 1), Tom is broken, seeking nothing but silence and routine. He must be alone out there.
Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography is astonishing, bringing us Tom’s world — unforgiving, at best a respite from mass death, but unearthly, as if never before seen. The currents, clouds and spiky outcrops conceal cruel beauty. This could be dismissed as a manipulation of the pathetic fallacy: outer equals inner chaos. It recalls a line by the Beatles: "Because the sky is blue, it makes me sad."
Fassbender has a steely command of his emotions. By merely entering a room, he can silence the others. The exception is Isabel (Vikander), gloriously transparent in her attraction to Tom. She wants to see his place on the bleak outcrop — but, even more, she wants to be with him. By the law of the time she has to be married to him, so they love and marry.
With no medical assistance, she miscarries twice and the sad little crosses go up on the stone. Anyone hoping for a soothing partnership at the lighthouse is soon shocked into silence as fatality strikes and never leaves. Then Cianfrance introduces something akin to magic.
After a hideous storm, a boat washes ashore with a living child and a dead man — her father. Tom and Isabel raise her as "Lucy", despite Tom’s reservations; Isabel, clearly, has been driven into a fantasy of motherhood and he acquiesces in her dream, though later he will be charged with murder and face execution. The real mother, Hannah (Weisz), calls her Grace, and the agony of the three-way conflict over Lucy-Grace (Clery) leads us towards resolution.
Despite their utter isolation as a family (Lucy-Grace is a small gem of joy), Tom and Isabel are naturally under fief to the control of the mainland, which is where their troubles begin and end.
The actors who make up the townsfolk — mainly sympathetic — form a microcosm of the society that can make or break us; they are convincing and aware of what must be called the symbolism of the lighthouse and its keepers. The light is the sole beacon in the darkness for passing ships. The inflexible ocean (in which the light is there for those who need it) both gives and takes — it is, perhaps, the oceanic void at the beginning and end of life.
Such portraiture is similar to a great painting: it needs contemplation before its subtleties reveal themselves. Light is a work of art — it places thought before visceral escapism.
The Light Between Oceans
Directed by Derek Cianfrance; script by Cianfrance, from the original novel by ML Stedman
Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery