Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”)
Written by: Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”)
There is something about the way some directors — in their wisdom? Confidence? Daredevilry? — allow their actors the considerable space to breathe freely and to nakedly “be” that, when we’re lucky, results in electrically vulnerable performances, dazzlingly intimate in their heedless, tightrope un-selfconsciousness and breathtaking in their vital, textured fullness and authenticity. It’s the sort of freedom that can clear away tricks and tics, stripping things down to the personal and uncrafted, to the spontaneous, inadvertent starbursts of honesty and messy, trembling revelation that inspire special, unexpected, often whole-soul performances from even celebrated, marquee actors, with whose best we previously thought we were well acquainted.
David O. Russell does that. (Witness: Christian Bale in “The Fighter,” the tremendous ensembles of “American Hustle” and “I Heart Huckabees,” Mark Wahlberg in every Russell movie he’s cast in.)
And Derek Cianfrance does that.
Watch “The Place Beyond the Pines” and try to tell me that isn’t your favorite Eva Mendes role, or some of the best work you’ve seen from Cooper and Gosling. Watch “Blue Valentine” and tell me you don’t have to remind yourself to exhale because you feel just that certain that you’re eavesdropping on private moments you weren’t ever meant to see (but can’t possibly tear your eyes from).
Cianfrance’s latest, “The Light Between Oceans,” could hardly be called as “raw” as “Valentine” or as “gritty” as “Pines;” on the surface, in fact, “Oceans” — a sweepingly romantic post-World War I period piece lit like a sunkissed watercolor painting — might seem a departure from the director’s oeuvre of hard-hitting, in-the-room immediacy. Undeniably, though, it shares that observer’s sensibility, that commitment to intimacy that both trusts and challenges its towering, A-list cast. Moreover, a careful viewing of Cianfrance’s recent narrative work reveals a clear lineage, a shared DNA that leads to the conclusion that “Oceans” was, indeed, the next logical step to which this has all been leading.
Based on the best-selling 2012 Australian novel, “The Light Between Oceans” unfolds the sort of heady, tragic tale that might, in lesser hands all around, veer easily and permanently into the swamp of melodrama. Reeling from his time in the Great War, the intensely solitary Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) applies to become keeper of a lighthouse on the fictional Janus Rock, 100 miles from the coast and the nearest human being (a situation which screams metaphor, but not ultimately overbearingly so). In short order, he catches eyes with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) a schoolmaster’s daughter whose piercing boldness and effervescence, despite losing two brothers to the war, disarms Sherbourne completely. Love blossoms, the two decide to marry, and the nearest human being becomes much nearer, as the rapturous newlyweds retire to an idyllic, private life on Janus. As it tends to do, though, tragedy besets the couple, and the inability to bear a child leaves both (and particularly Isabel) despondent — until the day a baby washes ashore in a dinghy, bringing with it the promise of life and happiness, but also an uncommonly heavy choice.
Bathed in exquisitely aching restraint and soul-rending inner turmoil, Oceans is potboiler escapist theater at its very best and classiest. From the early-goings extreme-wide of a steam train billowing a florescence of smoke across an undeveloped landscape, the production design, costumes, setting, and masterful symphonic score by Alexandre Desplat weave a wonderfully nostalgic portal to the sumptuous epic romances that populated the ’80s and ’90s, such as “Out of Africa,” “The English Patient,” and the films of Merchant and Ivory. As my viewing partner noted, “Oceans” feels like a novel — in a very good way. The strength of its direction and performances more-than-ably support what might be otherwise oppressively weighty themes, and the film thrives when we’re given airless, desperate moments in which to co-suffer with our protagonists.
Vikander is at first a luminous firecracker, recalling Audrey Hepburn as she exudes irresistible, irrepressibly girlish glee to chip away at Tom’s first-act stoicism; as the film progresses, she seamlessly “matures,” contending with despair and tribulation in stunning moments of hoarse, raw-throated agony and quiet, hard vindictiveness. Fassbender, our oak, indisputably one of our greatest living actors despite breaking out relatively recently in 2008-2009, is absolutely tailor-made for the repressed torment that inhabits Tom, so much so that “Oceans” seems, finally, to make an incontrovertible and nigh-embarrassingly obvious case for what we all know in our hearts we’ve been clawing to see: Fassbender’s John Proctor in (Cianfrance’s?) The Crucible. (Seriously: Why deny it any longer? Let’s solidify the Day-Lewis heirdom. We’ll all be the happier and more blessed for it.)
Weisz, as a third, profoundly interested party, continues her run as one of Hollywood’s most intriguing and enigmatic screen presences, imbuing a potentially somewhat straightforward role not only with every drop and more of the requisite, excruciating pathos, but also with enough eye-darting lost-ness and unpredictability to bring the character vibrantly to life amid despair. Australian screen giant Bryan Brown also shines in a gruff-then-tender turn as Weisz’s father.
If the film falters, it is, unfortunately, in the end. For my money, the resolution is given too short shrift to land with an emotional finality proportionate to the rest of the story. I needed more time with it, a chance to go deeper. Two, three more short scenes, tops. There are extreme decisions and actions by our protagonists that seemed, at times, a bit to swallow, but they went down eventually, particularly as the events they set in motion and the artistry with which said events were handled justified any misgivings. The film, at day’s end, is good. Very, very, very, very, very, very good. Where “Blue Valentine” gave us frank, uncomfortable, exposed-nerve emotion, acutely beautiful in the openness of its wounds, and “The Place Beyond the Pines” set a harrowing, multi-generational, “Wuthering Heights”-style opera in a dingy, recognizable modern world of motorcycle crime and police corruption, “The Light Between Oceans” blends these spirits, foregoing the “edge” of 2016 for the chance to carry us away like we used to be, once, to wince tear-stained faces and open grateful hearts at the delicate intertwinings of love and pain. Oscar nominations, well-deserved, should be in the offing.