Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans” is something like a film noir and something like a soap opera. Yet it’s neither.
It’s also something like life, but not very lifelike. It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with it. It’s beautifully shot, by Adam Arkapaw, and professionally cast with Oscar nominees and winners.
It tells a long and complex story, taken from a novel by M.L. Stedman. Perhaps that’s where the problem starts.
It’s 1918, and Tom Sherbourne has returned, intact but emotionally wounded, from the Great War. He takes a solitary job as a lighthouse keeper. But just before he reports for work, he meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander).
They marry, but have trouble conceiving children. One day a rowboat, containing a dead body and a live baby, washes up on shore. Isabel desperately wants to keep the baby and pretend the boat was never found.
Tom reluctantly agrees. Unfortunately, after some time, the child’s real mother, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), appears.
In a film noir, the child-nappers would be ridden with paranoia, with sadistic and highly logical new tortures springing on them unexpectedly every so often. In “The Light Between Oceans,” these things are not so much sprung as they are simply spoken. Nothing is tightly coiled.
If the movie were a soap opera, it would be roiling with blood-red emotions over lost children and tragic misunderstandings — but Cianfrance is an intelligent filmmaker, and calmness prevails.
Cianfrance has made fascinating character dramas, “Blue Valentine” (2010) and “The Place Beyond the Pines” (2013), which break apart chronological structure to get closer to characters and emotions.
This movie does not do that. Instead, it charts a lengthy passage of time with ordinary montages and flashbacks. Rather than getting lost in moments, the moments are like checkmarks. (Wedding? Check. Pregnant? Check. Birthday? Check.)
The entire thing runs some two hours and 12 minutes, and it feels both too long and not long enough.
If Fritz Lang had made it as a noir, or if Douglas Sirk had made it as a weepie, it would have ended with some kind of tragic irony, some kind of shocking, but cruelly definitive curtain coming down on this story of bad choices and good intentions.
And yet the story comes to a soft, drawn-out conclusion. It’s a shame because this is a movie intended for adults in a time that such a thing has become increasingly rare, but it’s as if the hard stuff, the real stuff, has been lost.
The Light Between Oceans
Two and a half stars
Starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance
Running time 2 hours, 12 minutes