The word “dark,” when applied to filmmaking, has become a rather neutral description, because it can mean so many different things. (“Beasts of No Nation” is dark, and so are Todd Solondz movies, as are “Chinatown” and “Deadpool.”) But Derek Cianfrance, the writer-director of “Blue Valentine,” “The Place Beyond the Pines,” and the somber new period romantic weeper “The Light Between Oceans,” is a filmmaker who reaches back to a primordial definition of darkness. His films are dark because they hit a nerve of pain — in his characters, and in the audience, too. In “Blue Valentine,” Cianfrance cut back and forth between a love affair in its giddy early days (when we could already see how troubled the Ryan Gosling character was, though he was also charming and tender) and what emerged out of it, after the couple played by Gosling and Michele Williams were married with children and his drunken irresponsibility and violence had begun to ruin their lives. The film wasn’t just a romance, it was a descent.
In “The Light Between Oceans,” adapted from a 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, Cianfrance tells a very different kind of story — stately and nicely dressed, sightly removed in time, rooted in a quieter rapture. Yet here as well, the bond of love leads to something inexorable in its darkness. At this point, it might seem an overstatement to compare Cianfrance to, say, Ingmar Bergman (he hasn’t achieved anything like that status), but it’s no exaggeration to say that the two are kindred spirits. “The Light Between Oceans” has a great deal of beautiful seacoast imagery (it was shot by Adam Arkapaw), but if you take away the calendar art, it’s totally a Bergmanesque soap opera. Cianfrance, like Bergman, is a filmmaker who likes to tear off the band-aid — slowly at first, then with a decisive rip.
The hero, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), is in deep pain before the film even begins. It’s 1918, and he’s an Australian veteran of WWI who served heroically in combat, but the cataclysm of seeing everyone around him die — and the guilt of having survived — has turned him into a buttoned-up shell of a man. Fassbender is an actor who does excellent repressed agony. Even when he’s just sitting still, steely and impassive, there’s a woundedness to his handsomeness; he communicates a sense of inner scars. In the opening scene, he applies to become a lighthouse keeper on the remote, picturesque island of Janus (pronounced “Jane-us”). It’s a job that he lands without fuss, because no one else wants to do it. The place is so gorgeously barren that the last fellow to occupy the position wound up in an insane asylum (a case of cabin fever), but it’s exactly that punishing isolation that Tom is seeking. What he really wants is to retire from the human race.
Fate, however, will not let him. Before he goes off, he meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who is young and pretty, warm and wise. She takes a shine to him, because she can see, beneath his quietude, that he’s a good man — and, beneath his stodgy mustache, that he’s also an attractive one. The two don’t have much of a courtship; it’s more like a single extended conversation. But she’s left with a desire to visit him on Janus, even though regulations forbid the lighthouse keeper from having anyone out there along with him. Unless, that is, he is married to her. And so they get married.
Cianfrance is one of the least showy of romantic filmmakers. He looks past the trappings to explore what the bonds of love are really about. In the case of Tom and Isabel, he presents a matched pair of earnest, innocent souls who want and need each other. What could go wrong? Let’s just say that they run into trouble while trying to have a child, which leaves Isabel in a state of rapt despair. One of Cianfrance’s themes — it was deeply embedded in “Blue Valentine” — is his unusually complex reverence for the sacredness of the relationship between mothers and children. It doesn’t take long for Isabel to transition from radiant to ravaged, and Vikander acts out the primitive strength behind that fall. Her desire to have a child is total, consuming.
That’s why, when a baby washes up ashore on a rowboat, along with a dead man who is presumably the baby’s father, an idea forms: They will keep the child as their own. In Isabel’s mind, it was meant to be. When Tom objects, saying that decency — and responsibility — require that the lost infant and her father be reported, he is right and she is wrong. But it’s also the case that he seems rigid and officious, and she is taken over by the desperation of her passion. They are both right — and wrong.
He gives in to her wishes, and Fassbender makes that a tormented decision: a fusion of chivalry and survival, a case of doing the right thing precisely because he understands how wrong it is. Yet the decision appears to take. They raise the child, whom they name Lucy, as their own, and the three become a nice family. Until one day when they have to go to the mainland, and Tom discovers, without looking for it, a clue to who the child is (or was). And what he does next is every bit as instinctive — and layered — a decision. He has to give a speech at a lighthouse ceremony, and in his fumbling way (which almost no one in the room notices), he turns that speech into a confession.
“The Light Between Oceans” becomes a kind of parental love triangle. There are Tom and Isabel, and there is the “other” woman: Hannah (Rachel Weisz), who is Lucy’s biological mother. It is an agonizing situation, and the strength of the drama is that Cianfrance, as a filmmaker, is right at home with agony. He doesn’t exploit it; he asks those of us in the audience to feel our way through the muck of it. That said, there’s no denying that the movie, while lavishly shot and acted with impeccable gravity, has the operatic manipulativeness of a deeply solemn chick flick posing as art. Its most traumatizing moment arrives when Lucy, now a toddler, cries out about wanting her “real” mommy (by which she means Isabel, her adoptive mommy). Yet the story would have summoned more power if it had simply honored Lucy’s wish. “The Light Between Oceans” winds up taking one too many self-serious twists and turns. The film earns its darkness, but it might have been even more affecting if it didn’t shrink from the light.