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Coincidences in major motion pictures are a lot like mosquitos during your summer picnic lunch. Encounter one or two of them and you are usually able to brush them aside long enough to continue enjoying your event. Three or more, however, and you're too busy dealing with their annoying consequences to appreciate the reason you are there in the first place -- in this case, to absorb Derek Cianfrance's atmospheric adaptation of the best-selling dramatic period novel The Light Between Oceans.
The fact that debilitating coincidences derail Cianfrance's latest effort should come as no surprise to anyone who watched the same issues plague his overlong and sloppily plotted The Place Beyond the Pines -- a triptych drama that had no clue how to properly connect the three stories at its heart. What's most disappointing, though, is the confirmation that Pines is the norm for Cianfrance, and not Blue Valentine, which was an expertly crafted, devastatingly performed romance built on the shoulders of the brilliant Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Pines and Oceans help prove that Cianfrance is far more concerned with mood than he is with logic, and his movies -- to me, anyway -- continue to suffer because of his choices.
The story is one with potential. Tom (Michael Fassbender), a World War I veteran, has returned home and accepted a position as the resident lightkeeper. It's a solitary job, one that took the sanity of the previous caretaker. But Tom's seeking peace and quiet -- until, that is, he meets and falls for Isabel (Alicia Vikander), the local woman he eventually marries. It's less of a spoiler and more of a crucial plot point to reveal to you that the couple try to start a family, often, and repeatedly fail. So, when a boat washes up near Tom's lighthouse containing a male corpse and a female baby, Isabel convinces her husband to fudge the log books so they can claim the child as their own.
By this point in The Light Between Oceans, I was enamored with Derek Cianfrance's pensive, quiet and subdued approach to the slowly developing romance between his exquisite leads, so the arrival of the first coincidence didn't necessarily rock my boat. The story was being carried in extremely gentle hands -- as if the director knew that novelist M.L. Stedman's story would crumble on its way to the screen if you jostled it too abrasively. And Fassbender and Vikander are a beautiful couple. It's no surprise that, in real life, they actually fell in love and continue to date.
It's unlikely that The Light Between Oceans will be remembered as anything more than the trivia answer to the question, "On what film did lovers Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander meet?" because the ill-plotted narrative gaffs start piling up quickly, and the movie fades away like candle smoke after a flame has been extinguished. Without ruining the development of the story, I'll just say that multiple developments in the story following the arrival of the baby in a boat will have you stopping and asking, "Wait, how is THAT possible?" If you want to read ahead on your own, look up Rachel Weisz's pivotal character. Her presence creates issues that, on paper might have made sense, but in the film, musters obstacles that the movie can't overcome.
Not that the cast doesn't try. Vikander gets to play a wide range of emotions, and the dramatic consequences of Tom and Isabel's selfish decision do threaten to give Light a real pulse. The Ex Machina actress treats her situation like a Shakespearean drama, though every time she dials up a thespian lather, her director usually cuts away, because he's unwilling to raise the energy level. Weisz is handed a complicated role, and she brings pathos and grief, even if she wins the Worst On-Screen Mother Award of 2016. Ultimately, I just can't recall the last time I've ever seen Michael Fassbender be this bored -- or this boring. He plays Tom as a stoic, rigid, sturdy and by-the-book protagonist.
Not unlike a lighthouse, now that you mention it.