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The Current Debate: Past Melodrama in "The Light Between Oceans"

Navigating the conversation around Derek Cianfrance’s latest film.
Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans , which premiered last week at the Venice Film Festival just before its stateside release, brings a tidy kickoff to the fall movie season—and a welcome departure from a summer largely bereft of worthwhile drama. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander play Tom Sherbourne and Isabel Graysmark, a pair of Australians who fall in love in the wake of the First World War, and move together to the isolated island where Tom is the lighthouse keeper. Cianfrance more or less bets the film on their performances, and as Owen Gleiberman writes at Variety, it mostly pays off:
Cianfrance is one of the least showy of romantic filmmakers. He looks past the trappings to explore what the bonds of love are really about. In the case of Tom and Isabel, he presents a matched pair of earnest, innocent souls who want and need each other. What could go wrong? Let’s just say that they run into trouble while trying to have a child, which leaves Isabel in a state of rapt despair. One of Cianfrance’s themes — it was deeply embedded in “Blue Valentine” — is his unusually complex reverence for the sacredness of the relationship between mothers and children. It doesn’t take long for Isabel to transition from radiant to ravaged, and Vikander acts out the primitive strength behind that fall.
Yet more than a few critics have noted something lacking. At Little White Lies, David Jenkins wonders if the problem lies in the difficulty of adaptation (Cianfrance’s screenplay follows M. L. Stedman’s 2012 novel of the same name):
There’s a constant, nagging feeling that something vital is being lost in translation. The story is an over-seasoned gumbo of lumbering contrivances and logic-defying melodrama. Perhaps the big difference is that, with a novel, you’re forced to activate your imagination, thereby creating a natural psychological partition between fictional events and reality. The act of reading is a constant reminder of a contrived, fanciful and possibly metaphorical world, and that is just fine. Film is a literal, visual medium, so seeing an interpretation of the words instantly does away with nuance or any feeling that this thing could be bigger than it instantly appears. And that is fine too.
Equating visual with literal may be painting with too broad a brush, but Jenkins is driving at an interesting question: is there a fundamental property to the way a novel activates our empathy that a film simply can’t reproduce? At the A. V. Club, A. A. Dowd raises a similar point when he suggests that Fassbender and Vikander’s performances don’t quite match up:
Maybe it’s just a literary issue. At a certain point, The Light Between Oceans seems almost single-minded in its pursuit of theme; by the time the nationality of the dead man in the boat is revealed, the film has made clear that we’re watching variations on survivor’s guilt—the idea that, in war and maybe life in general, staying alive (or emotionally fulfilled) is often a zero-sum game, dependent on choosing your own well-being over that of a stranger. Fassbender’s reliable, monolithic steeliness as a broken soldier makes sense in this context. But if the drama is purely abstract, Vikander didn’t get the memo. Even as her storyline takes on the baggage of metaphor, she plays the emotions real and raw and close—her Isabel visibly brightening as she reads her first love letter from Tom or crumbling as a terrible loss dawns upon her. Nothing symbolic there.
Vikander’s raw emotional performance fits the way Jenkins describes novels—“a contrived, fanciful and possibly metaphorical world”—while Fassbender’s tortured stoicism belongs to the more visually detailed world of film. But Michael Sragow, at Film Comment, draws the distinction another way, arguing that both of the lead performances suffocate under the weight of overwrought melodrama, while another, Rachel Weisz’s Hannah, succeeds precisely because it draws its subtle humanism from the novel:
It’s as if [Weisz] gets her personality and edge from the novel, not the script. The book aspires to be about our common mortality, but the movie is a melodrama about mother love gone haywire. Cianfrance reduces even nature’s elements to the elements of melodrama. A furious gale is simply the means to leave Isabel in a near-dead faint at the lighthouse door.
All this novel vs. film business may just be distracting from a less-complicated consensus: it seems like Sragow, Jenkins, and Dowd would all agree that what passes for poetic characterization on the page comes off as melodrama on screen—and that Fassbender and Weisz simply do more to ground their performances than Vikander.
If that’s the case, though, I think it’s a misguided argument: there’s nothing in Vikander’s performance to rule out themes like “our common mortality.” Harping on melodrama only serves to obscure the psychology it points to, which in this case is satisfyingly complex: Sragow’s dutiful explanation of the title, after the lighthouse’s location “where the Indian Ocean meets the Great Southern Ocean,” misses the fact that it also refers to the child at the film’s center, who is a light between the love of two mothers—not to mention, by the film’s end, between two generations. It’s not a stretch to find signifiers of common mortality here.
Of course, even accepting melodrama doesn’t do away with all of the film’s faults, as Justin Chang observes at the Los Angeles Times:
The deeper problem is that, in its overly insistent visual and musical touches, the film doesn’t amplify so much as thwart the emotional integrity of what it’s showing us.
Still, there’s something about this film that makes me want to forgive it. Stephanie Zacharek’s review at Time offers an elegant description:
Quiet torment practically seeps through Fassbender’s pores. Weisz, as a woman who has lost all that she ever loved and is suddenly offered a chance to regain some of that love, radiates quiet, reserved desperation. And Vikander, in her most wrenching scenes, presents Isabel as a woman close to drowning in waves of grief and longing, though she is also, at times, near-monstrously selfish. Still, you feel for her, because there’s no way to look into Isabel’s eyes and dismiss the deadening sorrow that has made a home there. She’s the movie’s heart—and what you see when you look too deep inside a heart isn’t always pretty.
From this angle, The Light Between Ocean’s beautiful backdrops are, in a sense, deceptive: this is a messy story about unwieldy human emotions overcoming rationality. Yes, it’s melodramatic; yes, it’s contrived. But it’s also about people learning to forgive one another for being under the sway of grief, longing, and depression. Doesn’t it seem fitting that such a film might ask—and receive—a little forgiveness of its own?
The Current Debate is a weekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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