If you've never cried in a movie before, The Light Between Oceans is coming for you. First, I bawled. Then I went home and told my roommates my plan to get pregnant, live in a lighthouse and raise goats. If you're not quite sure how these feelings relate, then like me, you probably haven't read the 2012 M.L. Stedman novel on which the film is based.
Because if I had read the novel (or at least watched the trailer), I would have known what kind of emotional journey I was embarking on. But I went in blind. And boy did it hit me hard.
The film opens on Australian Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a young man with a mustache beyond his years who has returned home after fighting in World War I. He takes a temporary position as a lighthouse keeper on a lonely island, some distance away from the dreary coastal town where Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) lives with her parents. In a dreadfully predictable and underexplained series of events, Tom and Isabel fall madly in love. Their whirlwind of a courtship consists primarily of letters and demure glances that in 2016 would constitute a crush. Nonetheless, they exchange an oddly tearful wedding kiss in the film's first 20 minutes.
The film quickly takes us to the top. We follow Tom and Isabel's love story to the little island that is suddenly far more cheerful. The couple grows to love each other in a series of montages that are scored for maximum effect.
If sadness were replaced with fear, this film would be the best horror movie of our generation. Waiting for the inevitable tragedy is painful in itself, and the emotional trauma only builds. The audience can only wait in suspense as the montage ends with Isabel's new baby bump.
And it spirals downward from there. It's difficult to sit through the screams of Isabel's second miscarriage. Vikander may have overacted the budding romance, but her tearful anguish is about as real as it gets.
In a miracle (cue the sun and more montages), the couple finds a baby girl lost at sea in a boat with a dead man. Isabel convinces Tom to adopt the child and bury the body. Tom is resistant but grows to love the child they name Lucy.
Here, the film assumes you'll be too blurry-eyed to notice it's biggest shortcoming. No explanation is offered for Tom's guilty conscious on which the entire plot rests. On the mainland he discovers the baby's mother, who is still alive and searching for her child. He leaves her a note assuring her that her daughter is well cared for. Perhaps seeing the mother's distress is enough to make him regret not reporting the child, who is now 4 years old.
It's never quite clear why he turns himself in to be tried for the murder of the man found dead in the boat and for child stealing. Meanwhile, Lucy is stripped from Isabel. "I want my mama," the girl screams. It's heart wrenching, but then again, two watches of The Light Between Oceans could desensitize someone for good.
The climax of the movie, where Isabel must choose between her daughter and husband, is certainly intense, but if one holds back the tears just enough to think critically, it's a bit senseless. There's no clear reason why Tom would want to go to jail for a crime he didn't commit and make his family suffer through a problem he unnecessarily created.
The Light Between Oceans has so much going for it. The setting is beautiful, the love story is exactly the type of thing that a 15-year-old dreams up and there's no shortage of action. But it's all just a little too cruel. The film grabs your heart and drags it through the mud, leaving you to pick up the pieces when the lights come on.