Greif and sadness has a way of surrounding us on all sides…like endless horizon when seen from the middle of the sea. We never really think about how we got there; usually we just set a course and set sail. It’s only once we’re off in the middle of nowhere that anxious feelings set in. When that happens, we can take desperate action…become people that are “not ourselves”. We look for any light on the horizon, and once we spot it, we’ll do anything we can to reach it.
If that light happens to be a person, god help anyone that steps between the desperate traveller, and the beacon guiding them to safety.
THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS begins with a World War I veteran named Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) trying to resume everyday life in Australia after returning home from the war front. His efforts prompt him to apply as lighthouse keeper on an isolated island several miles off the coast. Life on the island is lonely, but Tom generally makes a go of it to relative success.
Upon completing his first six-month contract, Tom returns back to the mainland and finds himself smitten with a young woman named Isabel (Alicia Vikander). After a quick courtship and marriage, the two return to the lighthouse as husband and wife, eager to live a life of romantic solitude with the hopes that their family will soon grow. However, things don’t go as planned.
Isabel miscarries her first child during an intense gale, then miscarries again on her second pregnancy. In short order, it becomes clear that the inability to bring a child to term is weighing on the couple in their solitude.
As if on-cue, a chance washes ashore. Literally.
Tom spots a dingy from an unknown boat of the island’s coast, and when he pulls it into port, he discovers the two souls that make up its passenger manifest. In the dingy is an adult man (already dead), and a baby girl.
The question of what to do with the girl is quickly discussed between the couple. Tom believes it needs to be reported to shore immediately and handed over to social services. Isabel believes the arrival is providence, and that whenever they return to the mainland, they will easily be able to pass off the infant as their own. Tom acquiesces, the incident goes unreported, and young Lucy is raised for five years on the island as the daughter of Isabel and Tom.
Five years on, however, the couple is back on dry land and Tom makes a discovery. He comes upon a mourner in a cemetery named Hannah (Rachel Weisz). She is praying at a headstone for her deceased husband, Frank, and daughter, Grace; a marker that denotes the pair were lost at sea the one day before the dingy washed ashore.
For Tom, there is no doubt – Lucy is Grace, and the mourner is her birth mother. He is struck by guilt so great that he leaves an anonymous note in Hannah’s post box. The note confirms that her husband is deceased, but that her daughter is in good hands.
The dispatch leads Hannah to renew her search for her lost child. It puts Tom and Isabel on the defensive and drives a wedge between them. And it puts young Lucy-Grace into an unfortunate position of being the monkey in the middle.
What’s incredible to see in THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is the way the parents all fight for their place in Lucy-Grace’s life. By nature and by nurture, they all have an equal claim to their importance to the five-year-old-girl, but at a certain moment one is left to wonder; are these people acting in the child’s best interest, or their own?
So it is that Lucy-Grace becomes the titular metaphor; the “light between oceans”. After twice losing her unborn children, and feeling waves of depression washing over her, Isabel is adrift and looking for any port in the storm. Likewise, once Hannah loses both her husband and child in one fell swoop, she is left untethered – a dingy tossed in a tempest (I promise I’m almost done with the metaphors). For both women, Lucy-Grace is refuge and reconciliation. She is a chance to fill a void, to claim purpose, to atone for perceived mistakes.
Why they want her in their lives has nothing to do with her own well-being, but they will tell themselves and all around them that it does.
When one says it that way, it seems like these people are selfish. Therefore, I should make it clear, neither of these people are selfish – they’re just people. They have expectations, desires, and needs. Being absent that which they most expected, desired, and needed, they will paddle hard for any safe harbour…as would we all.
In the middle of all of that, we get the complicated decisions of Tom. Twice in this story, we watch him compromise his morals in the name of a greater loyalty. He is no hero in either scenario, and yet both times we look at him and sympathize. Is it because he looks at the bigger picture? That he considers someone other than himself? Is it even fair that in a story filled with characters demanding sympathy that he garners the most sympathy? Perhaps that says something to a character’s role as facilitator. When we are given three characters riddled with feelings of inadequacy, it’s the one who forsakes their own wants who becomes the one that will rise to the surface.
The curious thing about the melodrama of THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is that sometimes things don’t get melodramatic enough. It seems counterintuitive to say this, but there were many moments that seemed like they could have been trumped-up, underlined with a swelling score, or raw displays of emotion. And yet, they remain relatively reserved; emotionally charged but underplayed. It feels like a bit of a pulled punch, since the crux of this story is so emotionally fraught that it could easily join the ranks of well-made modern melodrama.
Still, as THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS decides to remain grounded, what we are ultimately left with is something sweetly selfish. The metaphors of isolation and salvation are in no way hidden in this film, and they are both relevant themes. After all, for many it’s those deep feelings of isolation – those moments of being adrift in endless ocean – that make them seek a light on the horizon so desperately. Their journey to the harbour may come at great cost, but when we put ourselves in their position, we cannot help but be sympathetic to the price they are willing to pay.