Two Stars Get Trapped In Stuffy Melodrama In 'The Light Between Oceans'

Give Derek Cianfrance credit where it's due: after the masculinity overload that was The Place Beyond the Pines, the writer-director has shifted gears to a female-centric romantic melodrama. In many ways, The Light Between The Oceans recalls the popular 1940s domestic films: Rebecca, Gaslight, Leave Her To Heaven, Dark Waters, and an underrated personal favorite, My Name Is Julia Ross.

Despite this throwback appeal, Cianfrance still seems incapable of grasping narrative construction on its most basic terms, or using his camera to weave performance into living beings. One might blame fidelity to M. L. Stedman's novel, where its pontificating prose and long descriptions of isolation need not require the pace of narrative. But this story of a guilt-ridden World War I veteran (Michael Fassbender) and his loving wife (Alicia Vikander) seems hellbent on simply weaving its dramatic points together through montages and ominous shots of ocean waves.

Consider how Cianfrance constructs their romance early in the film: After returning to the small town after his first months of isolated lighthouse duties, Tom takes Isabel out on a picnic on her insistence. He briefly mumbles off his family troubles into the wind while she gives him a brief smile and confidence boost. But in the montage sequence that follows, their letter correspondence suggests that such a date has radically changed both as people and their views on the possibility of love. Each line of the voiceover only grows in its cosmic feeling, featuring nothing of the specifics of their lives. Like in the rest of the film, the dramatic moments rarely build on each other, and such montages attempt to draw out the connective tissue. While the main drama—a baby and a dead man wash up in a boat after Isabel's second miscarriage, and the resulting guilt as the issue becomes more complicated—is a compelling one, the lack of forward movement stagnates any dramatic tension.

In some ways, this emphasis on montage and universality might remind one of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, who also opts for elliptical construction over direct narrative. But Cianfrance chooses the absolutely beautiful over the specific; he places his actors in poses instead of allowing emotion to flow through their gestures. Dialogue constantly rings out platitudes instead of drawing on the world they inhabit. Only one shot sticks out: Vikander lays almost in a solemn pose across a wheat field, her handing dangling over two stalks while two crosses sit in the background.

The culture, customs and even the social order that runs the 1920s Australian town remain largely unexamined and inessential. In fact, Tom only lights the all-important lighthouse twice, despite the supposed importance of its use (which the townsfolk constantly remind us of). Such practices are not necessary for good drama, but it speaks to Cianfrance's construction of films, from looking at their impactful moments instead of their design. James Gray (The Immigrant), Hollywood's only great American filmmaker interested in melodrama, builds from the bottom up—each choice in environment, accent and social custom becomes absolutely necessary for the drama to unfold (what Kent Jones called "Cinema with a roof over its head"). For Cianfrance, film is made for the moments of screaming, denouncements, and embraces—but these big moments of melodrama only work if constructed around others.

Fassbender and Vikander, two performers whose primary mode of delivery has become steely-eyed glances and low, hushed tones, contribute to the passing indifference. Fassbender attempts to rack up guilt by occasionally tightening his throat and allowing tears to appear just out of the corner of his eyes, but there is little arc to the development of his guilt. Vikander (once again) feels thwarted by remaining dour with puffy cheeks to push her pouted anxiety. She is ironically given much less to do than Fassbender in this women's melodrama. One catches glimpses in the montages of moments that could give these performers more simplistic but indelibly human gestures, but they cross on screen so quickly to never register. Instead, the final credits featured cropped images of their embraces in the clouds above, attempting to remind us of some great romance that as transpired, but few will see that as the case.

The Light Between Oceans opens Friday.

Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.