The Light Between Oceans Review




Back in 2012, Australian writer M.L. Stedman debut her first novel The Light Between Oceans. Stedman, who moved to London to become a lawyer, wanted to try her hand at creative writing, seeking out tutors and take writers courses to hone her written skills, which ultimately led to her first publication. After its debut, the book slowly became an international bestseller, gaining praise from book reviewers and from reader enthusiasts. Now, after much success from its novel, Stedman’s work making the jump from page to screen as DreamWorks Pictures and director Derek Cianfrance present the cinematic presentation of The Light Between Oceans. Does this film have guiding light or does it get lost at sea?


A veteran, who’s Haunted by the horrors of World War I, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) finds a temporary solace as a lighthouse keeper in a remote costal town, presented with his own solitude and dutiful purpose for the next several years. During this time, Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) enters his life, a local woman whose personal loss and is quickly drawn to Tom’s steadfast beliefs and quiet life. After their wedding comes a several periods of heartache as Isabel experiences tragedy in the form of two miscarriages, placing a grey cloud of misery and sorrow over her and Tom’s marriage. One afternoon, a boat comes to shore, carrying a dead man and his infant daughter, who is still alive. Taking to the child right away, Isabel hopes to keep the orphan infant as her own, trying to persuade Tom to join her in this parenthood decision that they’ve always wanted. Going against his better judgement, Tom agrees, and while the years pass without any incident, eventually a woman named Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz) appears, revealing herself to be a distraught individual who not too long ago lost her husband and baby to the sea.


First, I must state that, while I was going to read Stedman’s book, I didn’t get a chance to read The Light Between Oceans. I’ve read snippets of the book here and there (whenever I saw it at work), but never actually read it from cover to cover. Thus, I can’t compare “apples to apples” in my review on what was expanded, omitted, or altered from page to screen. I remember seeing the trailer for movie version of The Light Between Oceans and was definitely interested in the movie (especially since Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander were both in it). Now, after seeing the movie, I felt that The Light Between Oceans, while a respectable romance film, doesn’t rise to the challenge.

Directing The Light Between Oceans is helmed by director Derek Cianfrance, who is known for such films as Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. Cianfrance also pulls “double duty” for the feature as he pens the film’s script, adapting Stedman’s written work, and crafting a narrative that filled with soap opera drama, but in a respectable manner that it doesn’t become cheesy or hokey. Interestingly, Cianfrance takes the time to introduces the film’s character, presenting the characters of Tom and Isabel and the cinematic world that they inhabit, while also creating enough material with matters of love and loss at the figures central core.

What must be said about this film is its cinematography. Its absolutely gorgeous and sweeping. With Adam Arkapaw, the film’s cinematographer, Cianfrance creates a beautiful setting for the film, displaying beautiful shots of landscapes and costal shots Australia and New Zealand (where the movie was filmed). Even the shots of island and of the lighthouse was very picture-esque. Coinciding with that is the film’s camera angles, which help enrich the picture with its very “cinematic shots”.  In addition, the film’s music is also beautiful sounding. Composed by composer Alexandre Desplat, the music helps set the mood for the feature, with a lot of slowly sorrowful piano melodies playing throughout that comes along with scenes of characters as well as the film’s setting. In short, even if a viewer doesn’t like the movie, you cannot deny how beautiful the film looks.

The problem with The Light Between Oceans is that it’s pretty slow (almost painfully slow in my opinion). Yes, there are some beautiful scenery shots and some great acting “moment” scenes, but (for the most part), the film just felt like it was dragging. For a movie that has a runtime of 2 hours and 12 minutes long, a viewer’s attention may begin to drift off (I did from time to time). Because of this, the movie has some pacing issues that do arise here and there as I felt I was engaged at some points and disinterested in others. Another problem was that the movie was too melancholy for liking. Yes, I know of the importance of the film’s themes and events are to its source material, but it was almost a bit “depressing” to watch as the entire film had a “Debbie Downer” feeling to it. To me, I think of like last year’s The Danish Girl, which I’ve seen, in comparison to The Light Between Oceans (an interesting story and great acting, but sad and depressing for me). In truth, like The Danish Girl, The Light Between Oceans has that “Oscar-bait” style of a movie. Whether or not that’s a good or bad thing depends on the viewer.

Another criticism I have for this movie is that the film itself felt (at times) cold and distant. Like I said, I haven’t read Stedman’s novel, but Cianfrance makes The Light Between Oceans (the film) too distant that the film’s story / character moments don’t resonate as strong or as impactful as it was intended.  Like any story (whether film, TV, or book), a viewer’s attention must fully capture in keep their interest invested in the story / characters. Unfortunately, The Light Between Oceans feels too far-away and a bit lifeless at times.

In terms of acting, The Light Between Oceans has three main principal cast members that help drive the film’s narrative forward. First there is actor Michael Fassbender, who plays Tom Sherbourne. Fassbender, known for his roles in several of the X-Men movies as well as Macbeth and Steve Jobs, so solid work as Tom, providing enough theatrical weight and acting skills to the proceedings. Behind Fassbender is actress Alicia Vikander who plays Tom’s wife Isabel. Vikander has become big name star in recent years (check her out in Ex Machina and The Danish Girl) and does so again in this movie. In truth, the character of Isabel is the driving force in the movie and thus Vikander’s performance becomes a bit more important than Fassbender (even though the film’s framework is presented via Tom’s perspective). As one would guess, Vikander’s performance is great and does help picture’s more emotional parts. It also helps that both Fassbender and Vikander have good chemistry with each other. Despite all this, these two characters (at various points) can be a little hollow, driven more by what the plot dictates rather than character development.

The last of the three comes in the form of actress Rachel Weisz, who plays Hannah Roennfeldt, the mother of the child that Tom and Isabel adopt. Her character is introduced during the film’s second act as well as her character’s backstory, which is presented in clunky manner, but gives purpose to what drives her to find her long lost child. Weisz’s acting is good as Hannah, but her character arc falls short and doesn’t have wholesome conclusion to the tale (at least to me it didn’t). Beyond those three, the film really doesn’t have a large (or recognizable) supporting cast. The only two I found worth noting is actress Florence Clery, who plays the 4-year-old version of Lucy-Grace (the child that Tom and Isabel adopt) and actor Anthony Hayes as Sergeant Vernon Knuckey.


Love and loss paint the cinematic picture in the drama film adaptation of The Light Between Oceans. Director Derek Cianfrance adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s best-selling novel is a well-crafted film, especially in its cinematography and with its two main leads. Unfortunately, the feature struggles to translate Stedman’s written work, creating uneven pacing issues and a slow-burner of a tale that’s cold to the touch. The story’s compelling, but not engaging…and that’s not good. Personally, it was an okay. It was beautifully shot and had two actors that I liked, but it was too slow-paced and melancholy for me. If you’re a fan of the book or a fan of Oscar-worthy style movies, then this movie is for you. However, I would probably say that this movie is best seeing as a rental, for it’s not a “must see” in theaters nor does it have replay value on DVD / Blu-Ray. All in all, The Light Between Oceans is a sorrowful romantic melodrama that, while a heart-wrenching story, is just too cold and distant to cast a “guiding light” to a viewer’s shore.

3.1 Out of 5 (Rent It)

Released On: September 2nd, 2016
Reviewed On: September 15th, 2016

The Light Between Oceans  is rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sexual content


  • The cinematography helped make this sad story more bearable. I liked the spacious, sweeping shots of the train at the beginning, and the sea throughout. Desplat’s score, which you mentioned a little bit, was very strange to me. I don’t remember the melody, only the impression. But it seemed to possess elements that were dreamlike, even psychological thriller esque. Did you notice this at all? I also noticed that the music seemed sad during the middle scenes with their daughter, which were visually joyous. Thought that was an interesting contradiction.

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