In the wake of World War I, people were defined by what they had lost. A generation of young men had been scorched from the earth, leaving a corresponding generation of young women desperate to find a match and begin the work of repopulating their communities. It’s helpful, when embarking into the sheer sadness of Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans, to bear this pressure in mind. If women have more or less always been expected to be mothers, this job was considered all the more noble in an era when so many lives had been eradicated. Imagine the pressure on a daughter whose brothers are all dead.
In The Light Between Oceans, Isabel (Alicia Vikander) is one such daughter. When she meets Tom (Michael Fassbender), a shattered war hero en route to his post manning an isolated lighthouse (and a measure older than she), it’s the opportunity she’s been waiting for. The two are quickly wed and set about starting a family on their remote island while Tom tries to recover from the surprise that he’s not only still alive but experiencing actual life events.
Cianfrance lingers over the couple’s simple happiness, taking care to convey their goodness. The audience is meant to want them to move forward, but when Isabel miscarries twice, her sense of failure is crushing. So when a mysterious boat suddenly washes up carrying a starving infant, it’s no contest: She convinces Tom to raise it as their own, passing it off as the fruit of her second failed pregnancy. What could possibly go wrong?
Things... go wrong. This film is dripping in sadness, elegantly performed. Rachel Weisz, glittering in an anguished supporting role, at one point passes out on her lawn from emotional exhaustion. It’s a moment that Cianfrance lets go entirely without comment, but it’s the point at which his audience can most universally relate.