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After an unusually weak summer silly season, it’s a little disorienting watching a movie with humans and a story that invests time in developing those characters. So it is with The Light Between Oceans.

Seclusion

Isabel (Alicia Vikander) with precious cargo
Isabel (Alicia Vikander) with precious cargo

It’s 1918 and the throes of World War I are in full force, bringing devastation around the globe. The war serves as a remote backdrop impacting five people and a story built on themes of loyalty, honor, family and love. And it’s an emotionally draining ride as the totality of people’s motivations and actions begin to take their toll.

At the center of this gathering human storm is an Australian soldier, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender, A Dangerous Method), returning from the battlefields of France. After seeing plenty of bloodshed and death, he’s more than happy to secure a job as a light keeper at a remote lighthouse. Peace. Quiet. Seclusion.

Before Tom can make his way over to the lighthouse, all of those hopes are almost immediately dashed when he meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl). She’s a mix of strong will and tenderness and the two forge a friendship as pen pals. That’s goin’ old school, taking pen to paper and writing thoughts and emotions — and crafting personal documents that can be preserved and handed down through the ages.

Pardon the digression.

She’d love to get away from the village for a spell and visit the light house, but rules would frown upon such a thing. The only woman who could accompany Tom would be his wife.

And so she, in a semi-round-about-ish sorta way, proposes he marries her.

The Troubles

The two craft a rather idyllic life by the ocean, but the challenges set in as Isabel endures two miscarriages. It seems like an act of fate when a dingy washes ashore. Onboard is a dead man and an infant girl who’s miraculously survived. So far.

And that’s when the desires and decisions and consequences begin to take their toll. It’s a little unfair, with the benefit of 100 years of hindsight, to wonder why they didn’t wait to try to have children — until his 3-year tour of duty is complete and they’re back among family and a support network of villagers. With Morse code and the occasional supply boat as their only life lines, having children in those conditions seems unwise.

The first miscarriage is told amidst the dramatic visuals of a miserable storm; it offers an imposing setting as Isabel grapples with the harsh environment in a futile attempt to get her husband’s attention. He’s locked away in the light house, innocently following through on his duties while she suffers. It’s an uncomfortable, hard to watch sequence that sets the dramatic tone for the remainder of the movie.

Through it all, the lighthouse becomes their lifestyle; it agrees with Tom and Isabel and the couple remain committed to it.

Choices and Prices

As the drama escalates, The Light Between Oceans turns into a study of which “right” is best. Is it the right thing to go through the legal process of adoption? But without a school or a church on hand, what are the odds of that? The rule-abiding soldier faces a moral dilemma.

The choices become more difficult from there as the girl forms a bond with Isabel, but the family has to contend with the revelation of the child’s birth mother back in the village and the events that led to the errant boat’s journey. It’s the kind of situational drama that, upon the movie’s conclusion, offers the comfort of knowing most audience members can go home to much simpler lives.  

Based on a novel by M.L. Stedman, the movie was adapted and directed by Derek Cianfrance, a University of Colorado grad hailing from Lakewood, Colorado. In a career spanning roughly 18 years, he’s built an impressive catalog which includes Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. The Light Between Oceans will most certainly put him on even more watchlists.

Draining but rewarding, The Light Between Oceans features characters in tough spots making their way through life. The conversations revolve around observations about how remembering all of life’s ills is too much work; it’s easier to forgive once and move forward.

And, in a conversation foreshadowing the pains to follow, Isabel comments on the ravages of war and the impact on her parents. Having lost a son, they’re still mother and father. There is no “widow” category for parents who’ve lost a child.

Ultimately, as the movie advances from 1918 to 1950, the underlying message is simple: We all have to get on with life. The choices we make and how we handle all their ramifications will drive the level of peace attained.