‘The Light Between Oceans’
Director:
Derek Cianfrance
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

It’s best not to think of “The Light Between the Oceans” as a gimmick. And that gimmick would be this: Take the stuffy period piece and grime it up with true grit. Quite unfairly, to some the words “costume drama” are dirty words, akin to “brussel sprouts” or “inflamed lesions.” Surely Derek Cianfrance — the anguished dramatist of “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines” — is the man to make one for everyone. In that sense it’s a disappointment. Taken as a movie that only slightly funks up the pageantry, however, it’s a solid and admirably muted melodrama, and one not ashamed to be what, at heart, it is.

Michael Fassbender broods but good as Tom, a shy and remote WWI vet newly arrived on a coastal Australian island to be its lonely lighthouse keeper. Despite wanting to keep to himself, it’s not long before this rugged slab of sensitive masculinity attracts the attention of local beauty Isabel (Alicia Vikander). Opposites attract, and Isabel is so warm and sprightly she doesn’t mind being the one who proposes marriage. Cianfrance takes us his time, lets us really get to know them, shows their tragic, failed attempts to procreate — all intel that comes in handy when they do something objectively awful.

One day a dinghy washes up ashore. In it are a baby and what appears to be her dead father. Tom and Isabel agree — her enthusiastically, he reluctantly — to keep her and raise her as their own. They sustain the charade even when the mother is ID’d as Hannah (Rachel Weisz), another local who assumes the world has robbed her of both husband and daughter.

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Such as one can suss out a filmmaker’s voice in only three films, Cianfrance is an unusual type: He makes movies that seem like they want to scream and howl at the moon, but which instead stay (mostly) quiet. The director has called his junior effort a “John Cassavetes movie in a David Lean landscape,” but though he revs up the hyper-realism — grungy locations, harsh light, deafening winds — his actors rarely speak, let alone shout. They suffer mightily, but they keep it all inside — just like the heroes of “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines.” They all play like Cassavetes films with most of the dialogue cut out.

“Lights” also carries over another Cianfrance specialty: structures that screw over the characters and even the audience. “Blue Valentine” herky-jerked between a couple’s happy before-time and their miserable last days. Like “Pines,” “Light” is told in linear, but with huge, gutting narrative leaps, even the occasional shift in perspective. That’s brutal, too. Forcing us to watch Tom and Isabel’s courtship in full makes the conjoined insanity, guilt and ostracization that follows is as gutting as watching Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams flirt then fight on repeat in “Blue Valentine.”

He almost gets away with it, too. After two finely judged, roomy acts, he reaches a third that is earmarking just enough room for Fassbender and Vikander to strut their stuff. But by the time the jig is up for Tom and Isabel, he loses his sense of precision, and winds up losing what’s likely a devastating turn from Weisz. But even slightly hobbled, Cianfrance's sensitivity and feel for characters who don't need words to express themselves shines through. It's a melodrama that doesn’t need grime to make it interesting or wrenching.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge