Plaintive tug-of-love drama exudes power

The Light Between Oceans (12A)

It’s 1919. Isabel (Alicia Vikander) is a volatile young woman trying to come to terms with the loneliness of life on a remote island off Western Australia. Her husband Tom (Michael Fassbender) is a lighthouse keeper struggling with shellshock after being on the front in World War 1.

Isabel becomes traumatised after suffering two miscarriages in a row. Shortly after the second one, a boat is washed up on the beach with a baby in it. It seems to have been sent from heaven. Indeed, there are allusions to the divine birth.

She’s tempted to keep it and claim it as her own, hiding the fact of her second miscarriage. Tom agrees reluctantly. 

The dead body of the baby’s father was beside it in the boat. Tom buries him. Then one day he learns that the baby’s mother (Rachel Weisz) is alive. Will he reveal his discovery to her or carry on as if nothing happened?

This is the most powerful film I’ve seen in ages. Vikander’s tortuous traumas captivate while her gentler moments throw that hugely expressive face into high relief. It’s another top-notch performance in a career that, though yet only a few years in, already confirms her in the front rank of women working in films today.

Elegiac mood

Fassbender – her real life partner  as well as her  ‘reel’  life one – equals her. I’ve been dubious about him in the past. Here he underplays in a manner that’s perfect for his isolationist character. 

Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography beautifully evokes the period.  One soon becomes enraptured by the film’s elegiac mood. 

This is buttressed by the atmospheric music score and a series of images that acquire the resonance of paintings, of visual poems.  In its latter stages it becomes truly epic in scope.

Its bittersweet message of forgiveness will  linger in your mind long after you leave the cinema. 

In the end it’s an achingly sad film, a plaintive threnody on the high price one can pay for a momentary lapse of conscience. 

There are no bad people here. One totally understands why Isabel does what she does and why Tom goes along with it. Their crime, if such it could be called, is paid for a hundred times over in remorse and the pain of separation. Love conquers all in the final analysis but it’s a love hard won, and one that comes with a lot of scar tissue.

‘Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.’ Make sure you see this film if it’s the only one you see all year. It’s a perfectly modulated essay on a freakish confluence of events. It will break your heart but also leave you with a sense of catharsis.

Listening to Fassbender reading a letter to Vikander towards the end with a lump in his throat I was reminded of Donal McCann’s climactic soliloquy in John Huston’s masterly The Dead. 

I can think of no higher praise.

Excellent *****