There's not much in the way of subtlety in The Light Between Oceans, the big screen adaptation of M.L. Stedman's 2012 bestselling novel of the same name. That weepie was an Oprah's Book Club selection, but the film version bares more resemblance to one of Nicholas Sparks' paperbacks.
The movie follows Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender, along with a scene-stealing performance by Michael Fassbender's jawline), a WWI veteran haunted by his past. You know this because every time someone mentions the war, you can practically hear "Hello darkness, my old friend..." playing in Tom's head. He has requested to be stationed as the lighthouse keeper on Janus, an island outpost hundreds of miles from civilization. Once there, there are lots of shots of him crying, or almost crying or thinking about crying, intercut with sweeping shots of the ocean.
During Tom's job interview, there is some hesitation about stationing him alone somewhere so remote. Thankfully, literally right before that, he saw Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) feeding ducks and they shared a meaningful look -- the first of so many moody, brooding looks between them, the type Sparks' movies are infamous for -- and she proceeds to propose after knowing him for approximately 24 hours. (Because the only woman allowed on Janus is the lighthouse keeper's wife.)
They actually don't marry right away. Instead, there is a letter-writing montage -- intercut with shots of the ocean -- where Tom professes profound sentiments like, "To be loved by you allowed me to feel again," and like four letters later, they are married in a rustic chic backyard ceremony. It's all so romantic -- just the most romantic -- that it'll make you wish you could swipe right on a lighthouse keeper of your own.
That's around the point The Light Between Oceans shifts gears from a whimsical if not completely improbable love story to an absolutely devastating soap opera. After Isabel suffers not one but two traumatic miscarriages, a rowboat washes ashore, inside which a dead man cradles a very-much-alive baby, and the couple hatches a scheme to keep (steal) said infant. But a stolen baby alone does not a melodrama make, so Tom and Isabel are eventually introduced to "their" daughter's grieving mother, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), whom Tom proceeds to torment with bits of information and little clues about the baby's well-being for years.
Is the movie Oscar worthy? As directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), it seems to fancy itself a prestige period piece; a haunting drama that will gut the audience and be showered in accolades. Fassbender (pre-Assassin's Creed) and Vikander (pre-Tomb Raider) turn in first-class performances -- especially the latter, who is so utterly captivating onscreen that it is impossible to look away from her. The light of the title is something of a metaphor, but it just as easily could be referring to Vikander.
Performances aren't enough to hold up a film that's also beautifully shot, but lacking in truly effective substance. The story takes you high on romance and then crashes you into depression, but it does so over and over and over again, seemingly relishing in making the audience wallow in the sads. And you'll feel sad, because that is a human reaction, but The Light Between Oceans is suffocating in tastefully-presented drama with a capital D, so that, by the end -- a bleak ending more The Notebook than Miley Cyrus walking off into the sunset -- you're left feeling...nothing really at all.