Tension and release is the driving principle of a tearjerker, where every good fortune is countered by something worse. And as dismissive as critics often are of the genre, it’s actually quite difficult for a director to make people cry en masse and genuinely feel things. Derek Cianfrance’s foreboding melodrama The Light Between Oceans follows a quiet lighthouse keeper whose family crest seems emblazoned with misery after the end of the first World War, until he meets a woman who will marry him and join him on his own private island. Then, of course, the results of this isolationism are also catastrophically sad. But for all the tragedy descending upon the characters of this film, it’s difficult to muster adequate tears — not because the acting is lackluster (it’s incredible, actually), but because the onslaught of melancholia is so relentless that it’s near impossible to refill the tear reserves.
Cianfrance may be the best actors’ director working in the business today. His heartbreaking relationship drama Blue Valentine (2010) is unrivaled in its realism, complexity and compassion, achieved through intense development with his two leads, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams — they lived in a house together for months to create their characters and dialogue. In this film, the trifecta of Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz could themselves sweep the acting categories at the Oscars.
Fassbender is Tom Sherbourne, a quiet man who saw so much death in the war that he’s convinced he can never be allowed in the same room with happiness. He does surrender to joy, however, in the form of a young woman, Isabel Graysmark (Vikander). The two marry and retreat to the lighthouse on Janus Island, where Tom is the keeper. They frolic in the breeze-blown grasses until they must stake not one but two gravesites for babies who didn’t make it to term. Isabel’s grief resonates as she heaves, sobs and gasps while sitting at her piano, realizing her body’s betrayal; we watch her confused emotions as stray, unsure smiles ripple over her face for a full minute in this scene. The couple’s loss is compounded by their circumstances — with so many dead after the war, they feel it's imperative that they procreate — and their remoteness. So when a baby washes ashore in a rowboat, the event seems almost a blessing, but the baby’s accompanied by a dead body, and Tom knows an albatross when he sees one.
The context and the substance of this story are heart-wrenching, but Cianfrance sometimes relies too heavily on our “mirror” neurons — watching people cry continually for two hours becomes more numbing (or grating) than moving. And the characters become frustrating, despite the performances. Playing into this is the economical film language Cianfrance employs to swiftly carry the story along (it’s based on a novel, so there’s much ground to cover). He uses pre-lapping dialogue, an artful montage technique in which words spoken in a new scene are heard before the film has cut from the preceding one.
This allows Cianfrance to convey the characters' thoughts while making room for more quick, soundless moments to add texture to the story. For the first two acts of The Light Between Oceans, the technique is seamless and mastered (his longtime editors Jim Helton and Ron Patane deserve much credit for their work). But toward the end I found myself begging for a break, for just one lengthy scene where no women had wet eyes to round it all out.
As with any brazenly romantic and tearful film, there are clichés: Women are carried and prostrate more often than they are walking, and men are always hugging their pregnant women from behind while the female is washing dishes or cooking. But the sense of authenticity that marks The Light Between Oceans at its best has everything to do with the acting — and if all Cianfrance ever gives us is that, it’s worth the price of his lagging third act.