It always begins with light. Be it an ancient myth or a modern movie, light carves away the darkness and gives form and shape to the world. In some cases, that light is metaphorical. In others, practical. But in The Light Between Oceans, it is indelible. It falls delicately on the characters and objects that populate the frame, giving both a tactile quality made for the movies.

Adapted from M.L. Stedman’s debut novel of the same name, The Light Between Oceans revolves around Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a World War I veteran and war hero suffering from survivor’s guilt. Sherbourne is a quiet man, not great with words, but with a face that speaks volumes of what he has seen.

Sherbourne accepts the job of lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock in Western Australia. Like the double-headed Roman god that the island is named after, Sherbourne cannot say goodbye to the past nor cease seeking the future. Though he might have come here to be alone, it does not take him long to find a wife, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), willing to join him.

Sherbourne and Isabel try to build a family on Janus Rock, but their first pregnancy ends in a miscarriage. They try again, but with a similar result. Both moments are painful to watch, particularly the second, when even the camera shies away, pulling back through a doorway until it simply cannot watch any longer. The image then abruptly cuts to shots of domestic abstraction: a teacup and an empty bassinette. The Sherbournes’ loss is palpable.

But then, in a dramatic turn of events, a dinghy washes up against Janus Rock. Sherbourne pulls the boat in and discovers the body of a young man and his newborn daughter. The man is dead, but the child is very much alive. Isabel takes it as a sign that the child has been sent to her. Sherbourne pleads with her to report the orphan to the authorities, but Isabel will not be swayed. A happy wife is a happy life, so Sherbourne buries the man, and the couple passes the child off as their own. No one suspects foul play, but the burden of truth is too much for Sherbourne, especially after he uncovers a crucial piece of information.

This revelation, coming roughly halfway through the movie, is but one of several plot twists that screenplay writer/director Derek Cianfrance weaves seamlessly into the melodrama. Some land squarely in the gut while others creep up so slowly and obviously that the reveal almost feels like an afterthought. In either case, the result is a deliberately paced narrative that carries the viewer through multiple perspectives and several decades of story before coming to a universal theme: It takes a moment to forgive and a lifetime to hold a grudge.

As with his previous films, Cianfrance excels as a director of actors, but as good as Fassbender and Vikander are, their performances are secondary to the lush and sweeping cinematography from Adam Arkapaw, the hopscotching edits from Jim Helton and Ron Patane, and the hypnotic music of Alexandre Desplat. All combine harmoniously into Cianfrance’s fourth feature film, a work of maturity, patience, and awareness.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Light Between Oceans (2016)
Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance
Based on the novel by M.L. Stedman
Produced by Jeffrey Clifford, David Heyman
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
Walt Disney Motion Pictures Studio, Rated PG-13, Running time 132 minutes, Opened Sept. 2, 2016.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 24, No. 3, “Keep the lights on.”