Derek Cianfrance’s highly anticipated The Light Between Oceans has finally been released, and it’s somewhat disappointing. Even having never heard of the novel, it was easy to get excited by the big names involved – the often great Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander as co-leads, Rachel Weisz thrown in for good measure, with the director of Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines at the helm.
Cianfrance’s immensely popular dramas have an epic edge to them, with intense interpersonal relationships that span across decades, the past interacting with the present in a number of ways. The Light Between Oceans also partakes in this trend, but while it is similar to Blue Valentine in its romantic overtones, it has more in common with the three-act structure of The Place Beyond the Pines.
Both films are gorgeously and creatively shot; The Light Between Oceans is gifted with one of the most beautiful locations we’ve seen depicted onscreen this year, and Cianfrance does well to imbue his various shots of the coast, the lighthouse and the sea with hope, sadness, and a range of emotions one wouldn’t expect from numerous shots of a lonely lighthouse.
The Place Beyond the Pines is filmed with a gritty, highly kinetic energy for the first 40 minutes, and settles into a more serene, reflective tone following that (and it has a great soundtrack to boot). The sudden shift in pace, and the twist of Gosling’s character being shuffled off early in the film, is a bold choice, which unfortunately fails to be entirely justified by the time-jump of the final act – the characters introduced just aren’t quite compelling enough to make up for the loss of Gosling. This is where the similarities between the two epic dramas begin: their much quieter, and somewhat disappointing, third acts.
The Light Between Oceans begins with an air of mystery and some subtlety with regards to Michael Fassbender’s guilt-ridden war veteran Tom, who seeks peace in his new role as lighthouse-keeper. A fleeting and sweet romance that can only be described as akin to a Nicholas Sparks novel picks up, as Tom meets Alicia Vikander’s Isabel; it’s all somewhat saccharine. However, once the montage of romance is out of the way, the film finally gets interesting. The marital bliss that was promised is kept consistently out of reach due to a series of miscarriages, and then there is the film’s main dramatic hook – the baby that mysteriously, and miraculously, washes up on shore.
It’s not a cut-and-dry resolution to their problems of course, as Tom has to hide the body of the child’s father. What follows is an admittedly quite silly and soap-operatic – but tense and involving – middle section of the film, but unfortunately the drama and tragedy reaches a boiling point too early, only to cool down entirely before the film is even close to concluding. In the case of The Place Beyond the Pines, you realise that this is where the film was always leading; the violent means by which the two father figures, played by Cooper and Gosling, was all but destined to end in some kind of disarray.
The quiet reflection of the rest of the film isn’t unwelcome – it does well as a kind of anti-action movie, where the consequences are more important than the thrills. But in the case of The Light Between Oceans, the film can’t help but feel like a fun and tense period-piece soap opera sandwiched between two somewhat mechanical acts, a long, strategic setup and a long, almost methodical conclusion.
Put simply, Cianfrance’s ‘epics’ lean towards being slightly too ambitious – in both cases an unpredictable, well-shot mess (mostly in a good way, in the case of The Place Beyond the Pines) that takes one dramatic heel-turn or large time-jump too far, taking a story right up to its absolute logical endpoint in an attempt at absolute, all-encompassing resolution, rather than allowing an ending with any ambiguity.
The Light Between Oceans suffers the most in this regard, the ending becoming a painstaking slog as what tension the film built up is dismantled piece by piece in favour of a neat, tidy and long ending. At least in the case of The Place Beyond the Pines the time-jump brings new circumstances and characters to explore – the jump giving the narrative a bit more momentum. Here, everything just feels slowed down.
All of this is not to say that Cianfrance’s films are unwatchable, because that wouldn’t be true – Place Beyond the Pines entertains and mystifies more than it bores (the same can’t be said for The Light Between Oceans). But, while it pains me to say it, they both could be shorter.