Dir: Derek Cianfrance
Starr: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Bryan Brown
Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 2)
NOTE: This review goes into some detail about the film’s construction which unavoidably discusses key plot points. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. It is worth a visit to the cinema purely to experience Cianfrance’s gorgeous use of widescreen.
“And Lucy needs her mother, you must see that.”
(A fateful remark from Isabelle’s father to his son-in-law Tom Sherbourne)
“He didn’t have an accent when we came across him. He was dead.”
(A moment of blunt poetry in the police interrogation of Tom Sherbourne)
Derek Cianfrance, regardless of what I think of his filmmaking abilities, is a unique film director. In Blue Valentine (2010), The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) and now this adaptation of the best-selling M.L. Stedman novel of the same name, Cianfrance has revealed himself to be a filmmaker devoted to a form of classical tragedy that has been rarely seen on cinema screens since the death of the Hollywood Studio system. In fact, I can think of only one other young contemporary filmmaker with a similar faith in classical tragedy, and that is the Polish actor-director Krzysztof Skonieczny, whose debut directorial feature Hardkor Disko (2014) is infused with a violent Euripidean sensibility. Cianfrance is a far more conservative filmmaker than Skonieczny, but that does not make his work any less interesting. My criticism of both his previous films was mainly to do with his propensity toward too controlling a narrative structure, and there are similar weaknesses in The Light Between Oceans, however, he never really allows these moments of over-plotting to mean a great deal to the tragic climax of his films. What makes his classically tragic sentiments all the more exceptional, is the fact that he routinely reaches for catharsis through the deployment of a peculiarly hopeful denouement. At the end of each of his features, thus far, there is a sense that the past’s refusal to let go of the central characters, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will cling on to future generations in a fateful stalking fashion. Cianfrance always offers the hope that the next generation will elude the fate of their forebears.
Cianfrance’s adaptation has remained relatively faithful to the M.L. Stedman novel about Tom Sherbourne an Australian veteran of WWI who returns to Australia to tend a lighthouse off the western coast of the continent. Tom meets a local girl called Isabelle Graysmark on his infrequent trips to the mainland, and after a brief courtship takes her as his wife. The couple live out on the Janus Rock, where Tom tends to the working of the lighthouse for the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service. Attempts to start a family meet with the tragedy of miscarriage, leaving Isabelle depressed and emotionally vulnerable. It is after a second miscarriage that the couple rescue a baby from a boat that has washed up on the shores of the island. Alongside the baby is a dead man. Tom immediately wants to report this event to the mainland, but Isabelle argues that the baby will be raised in an orphanage, whereas they could pretend it is her baby and raise it as their own. It is this fateful decision that sets in motion a series of events that have repercussions for decades to come.
Where Cianfrance is undoubtedly a gifted craftsman is the way in which he manages to elicit strong emotional performances from the actors he works with. Despite the fact that Alicia Vikander’s very modern body seems to suggest miscasting in the role of Isabelle, she nonetheless delivers another finely nuanced performance to place alongside excellent work in other period dramas, such as Testament of Youth (2014) and The Danish Girl (2015). The vivacious joyousness she embodies in the initial courtship with Tom, makes the shock of her grief even more powerful. Little detailings, such as the self-possessed stride that takes over her moments of tragic torpor, give the role a texture and practicality at odds with the martyred female she initially appears to be. Cianfrance is also smart enough to give Fassbender the space to channel some of his more sinister energies in the service of his role as the traumatised war veteran. Fassbender has an innate cruelty and violence that too often director’s try to downplay to accentuate a period romanticism. His best performances are underpinned by his barely suppressed, and disconcertingly erotic, potential for the sadistic. Early in the courtship Fassbender teases out the dangers of what his character has been asked to do during the war. Never does his character explain things, but Cianfrance allows Fassbender to insinuate a violent undercurrent into his inability to articulate feelings and emotions. This is partly down to the director’s decision to use a number of intense close-ups upon the highly expressive faces of each of his principle players, but more of this later.
Perhaps, the stand out performance of the entire film comes in the second half, when Rachel Weisz’s grieving mother is brought in to the idyllic and self-contained world of the Sherbourne’s. Weisz steals the film from its leads through a cautiously pained performance that brings so many of the film’s subtextual elements together. She has a face that is made for Cianfrance’s close scrutiny, with so much of her performance being located in the way she looks at people, or things. Guarded trepidation mingles with accusatory rage and the guilt of somehow failing as a mother. Her sequences with her returned daughter Lucy-Grace are heartbreaking as she subtly demonstrates how difficult it is to feel your way back into your child’s life, when the child doesn’t see you as their mother. Physical contact, the most direct way that a parent expresses affection for their child, is presented as a stunted and incomplete action, something painful in its lack of reciprocation. Weisz does a great deal of fine work with the most difficult role of the film, which only makes me wonder why this gifted actress seems to have been most recently side-lined in minor roles in other films.
Cianfrance and his DOP Adam Arkapaw have mapped out a landscape of tragedy by using an intensity of close-up to capture the human element, but projecting this against the truly awe-inducing widescreen location photography of the natural landscape and its wild, tempestuous cruelty. Similarly, in The Place Beyond the Pines the director used unrelenting tracking shots and wide-framed, high-angled location photography to emphasise the way in which the natural environment claustrophobically closed in around the protagonists, as if forcing them down pre-ordained routes. Humanity is powerless in the light of those more primal and elemental forces at work in the natural environments they inhabit. Nature then is the source of all human tragedy, as it is to nature that we turn when searching out our fates.
Cianfrance reinforces this visual patterning of narrative form through his pathways in and out of the film. The film opens with a scene in which the only person we clearly see is Tom Sherbourne, as he is being interviewed for the position of temporary lighthouse keeper. The cameras intent focus upon Tom draws explicit attention to his isolation, his aloneness. From the opening moments of the film the audience are being primed to consider Tom as a man alone, with a destiny to remain alone. The film’s closing image seals Tom’s fate and confirms that prediction of destiny, even if he spent a significant portion of his life in a loving marriage. Remember, in tragedy one cannot escape their fate once it has been decided.
A final element of Cianfrance’s film that underlines the strong narrative pull of tragic destiny can be found in the expert use of sound design to connect disparate people and locations within the narrative. Immediately before the miraculous arrival of Lucy-Grace upon Janus Rock, Isabelle is shown crouched down in the grass of a hillside, her fingers teasing out some hidden meaning in the long green blades. A sound, as if the earth is speaking to her, heralds the arrival of the boat carrying the baby. This sequence is directly echoed much later in the film when Hannah (Rachel Weisz) is shown lying with her ear to the lawn of her back garden, just as Lucy-Grace approaches with her grandfather (Bryan Brown). This is the moment when the estranged daughter finally acknowledges some form of filial bond to Hannah. Fate is delivered in sounds without clear source. Tom is initially pulled toward the discovery of the truth about his daughter’s provenance by hearing a siren-like song in the churchyard as he waits for the vicar to christen Lucy-Grace. Stumbling upon a gravestone for a lost husband and child, Tom walks headlong into a grief created in the vacuum that his own family’s happiness has left behind.
As with all of Cinafrance’s films, thus far, I have problems with the way that he frequently forces the fatefulness of his tragic designs into rather overblown plot twists. Towards the end of The Light Between the Oceans there is a torturously contrived moment where Isabelle’s mother tries to persuade her daughter to support her husband in his hour of need, immediately after which Hannah arrives at the Graysmark family home to tell Isabelle that she will give Lucy-Grace back to her if she will only ensure that Tom pays for what he has done. In the end, as was stated before, these contrivances tend not to matter to Cianfrance’s endgame, which has repeatedly played out as a projected coda of reconciliation, or renouncement. The necessity for tragic catharsis is subtly undermined by a post-cathartic diminishing of the scope of each film’s tragedy.
As I said at the beginning of this review, Derek Cianfrance is a unique director.