Is ‘yearnful’ a word? If not, I’m making it one for our purposes. The Light Between Oceans, Derek Cianfrance’s adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s bestselling Oprah’s Book Club weepie about a lonely lighthouse keeper, is… very yearnful. Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond The Pines) is so brilliant at creating a feeling that it feels unfair not to go out of my way to praise his obvious talent, but in Light Between Oceans, Cianfrance meticulously, tastefully, earnestly, crafts the same feeling, over and over and over again.
He’s so plainly a deft craftsman that it makes me feel childish for saying so, like some unruly teen blowing hand farts during a heartfelt eulogy. But honestly, how many times do we need to be told that life is romantic and unfair and heartbreaking and beautiful? It’s too much. Too sad. Too earnest Too serious. Too beautifully acted, the cinematography too sun-drenched, the pianos too tinkly. The Light Between Oceans is so relentlessly tasteful that it’s in poor taste. It becomes parody of itself, like a feature-length adaptation of Beautiful Handwritten Letters™ from Her.
Michael Fassbender (a fantastic actor perfectly cast, because that’s what Cianfrance does), plays Tom Sherbourne, a lonely WWI veteran returning from the Western front to a new home in Australia, where he’ll soon man an island lighthouse in a corner of the world (the literal “light between oceans”), where he’ll live hundreds of miles from other humans. Which suits him, you see, because he’s haunted, handsome and beautiful and haunted by the unspeakable cruelty of man. So he’s off to become a lighthouse monk who’ll presumably spend his days in self-imposed penance, working off his survivor’s guilt with an intense regimen of morose stares.
Unfortunately for his monk plans, nothing is more irresistible to hot babes than dashingly handsome haunted dudes who want nothing more than to love you like you deserve if only they weren’t so brooding, so complex, so doomed to a loner’s life of silent pining (for you, girl! if only things were different!). Duck-feeding townsgirl Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander, another unimpeachably perfect choice), meets this smoldering, square-jawed brood furnace and immediately proposes marriage (literally on their first date, a beautiful windblown picnic where they stare out at the forlorn lighthouse). It’s the only way she’ll be allowed on his personal lighthouse island, you see. Tom balks at first, saying “You’d have to have rocks in your head to want to marry an old handsome romantic war hero lighthouse keeper like me,” which of course only stokes the budding flames of her passion, and before you can say “Let’s just take it slow,” they’re doing it.
Wedded bliss. Spring rain. More beautiful handwritten notes. Tide pools. Goats and ducks and canned peaches. And the only thing missing from their extended breeze-kissed secluded postcard sex honeymoon is children. Except Isabel keeps miscarrying (sperm too broody for her ingenueterus, I imagine, though this was the 1920s and the doctors didn’t know about that then). She seems on the verge of breakdown until one day, a baby just floats up to the island on a boat. And at first they’re like, “Shore baby, score,” but naturally, that shore baby only leads to more tough decisions and crying and brooding and inexplicable guilt-ridden self-denial. So noble. So tragic. Isn’t that just the way?
From a certain angle, Derek Cianfrance is such a good filmmaker — the man shoots a gorgeous hand-held tracking shot and has an eye for fleeting glances that communicate multitudes — that it’s hard not to like him. From another, and I also noticed this to a lesser extent in The Place Beyond The Pines, he seems to have this single-minded obsession with the inevitable. He specializes in these zero-sum plot problems, where the characters are mostly good people railroaded by circumstance, creating a quilt of similar situations such that his films feel like elaborate Rube Goldberg machines carefully crafted to make everyone sad. I find this overarching sense of inevitability alienating — pretty, impressive, but not especially insightful or inspiring. If it’s all inevitable, what’s the point? This kind of weaponized romantic melancholy is intensely cinematic, but not especially thoughtful. It’s like Derek Cianfrance just wants to watch the world wallow.
There are only so many times I can have my heart inflated and squished and inflated again before I start to get annoyed at the process. I have no objection to a weepie in principle — just the other night I watched Brooklyn again, and cried like an idiot, again, undeterred by the knowledge that I was going to. And that movie ends, like many scenes in Light Between Oceans, with sun-drenched slow-motion set to earnest voiceover. The difference is, Brooklyn is full of light moments. Funny moments. Cute moments, that give your heart a rest and provide contrast. The Light Between Oceans is beautiful, and beautifully acted, and affirming, and heartbreaking, but it’s always heavy, never light; always serious, never cute or funny or arch or banal. It’s like a Pixies song without the quiet parts. Which makes it, for all its virtues, kind of exhausting.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.