Review: The Light Between Oceans “pushes against romance and melodrama conventions”

4 years ago
Aidan Johnson

The Light Between Oceans is directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, A Place Beyond the Pines), starring Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander. A romantic melodrama to its core, the story follows a lighthouse keeper and his wife as they meet and begin their lives together in post-Great War Western Australia.

Based upon M.L. Stedman’s acclaimed novel (which everyone’s mum has probably read), the film brings the same sense of yearning and warmth, only adding to this with spectacular visuals of both the coastline of Australia and the line of Michael Fassbender’s jaw.

For me, the most compelling and arguably the strongest element of Cianfrance’s films are his emphasis on casting and chemistry. Prior to filming his movies, Cianfrance organises for his actors to live privately together for a number of months, in which time they fall in love. This is a process that has proven successful in the filmmaker’s previous films Blue Valentine and A Place Beyond the Pines, also proving that Derek Cianfrance is a boss matchmaker. The actual love between Fassbender and Vikander resonates so strongly onscreen that it fully aids the intimacy and believability of the story and emotion that is played out. Perhaps without it, the film would be just another romantic period melodrama.


This film is also unique in terms of its visual style. With cinematography by Aussie Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom, Macbeth), each frame is thoughtfully plotted out. Each shot is framed into three sections, with the action taking place on the outer two triads in scenes of conflict or discomfort, action which takes place in the centre establish scenarios of equilibrium or peace. It is a marvellous demonstration of visual metalanguage.

Having noticed this early in my viewing of the film, I felt so connected to the idea of ‘the light between’. It really got me thinking about where that light would come from for each character, with Tom’s (Fassbender) narration aiding this idea. Tom, as the lightkeeper, tends and brings the light himself. Tom states that his own light comes from his wife Isobel (Vikander), but when her light dims, they are both in darkness.

The use of light and dark as a visual motif is utilised masterfully throughout the film, carrying through the question of where each character’s light comes from as we meet new characters and the story unfolds. And, of course, the title of this film is one of such poetry. That, as it is explained in the movie, it is their lighthouse that stands between the Southern and Indian Oceans, ‘the light between oceans’. But this can mean so much more for each character.


Underpinning the gorgeous visuals is the score by Alexander Desplat, which is swelling, yet subtle and understated. Desplat again demonstrates his abilities to reinforce emotion and drama through music.

In terms of performances, Michael Fassbender carries the film tremendously. He is consistently proving to be one of the most talented, versatile and bankable actors working today. If this film proves anything new about Fassbender, it is only that he can make a moustache smoulder.

Then there’s Alicia Vikander. Fresh off her Best Supporting Actress win for The Danish Girl (and spiritual win for Ex Machina), she is stunning and raw as Isobel. I completely bought her performance and was moved by her character’s plight as she questions her role and identity as a wife, a mother and a woman.

Also featured in the film is Rachel Weisz who gives a strong performance, although her old-school Australian accent is questionable at times. Also, shout out to Emily Barclay (Please Like Me) who makes an appearance as Weisz’s sister.

This film does feel somewhat Australian, filmed in both Australia and New Zealand. I got ‘the feels’ during a scene in which Tom and Isobel dance to ‘Waltzing Matilda’.

Come awards season, The Light Between Oceans may receive a few nominations, including Best Score and Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as a possible nomination for Alicia Vikander. However, due to the sheer abundance of Oscar-worthy films coming up, it may slip under the radar. Regardless, The Light Between Oceans has longevity, which cannot be said for many other films, including past award winners and nominees alike.

I really loved this film. It pushes against romance and melodrama conventions, instead drawing from and eliciting real emotion, payed off through visual motifs and splendid writing which ties up loose ends and satisfies. The lead performances are absolutely divine, matched only by the visuals of coastlines and sunsets galore (although I may still prefer Fassbender’s face over the latter).

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: