“You can never tell what the tide’s going to bring in from one day to the next,” says lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) to a solemn crowd of Aussie townfolk. As one of many heavy metaphors flung ashore in “The Light Between Oceans,” the latest feature from Derek Cianfrance, these words refer not only to the fickle nature of Janus Rock, an island off the southwest coast where Tom lives with his wife Isabel (Alicia Vikander) in the aftermath of WWI, but to the film’s central conflict: a baby in a boat appears magically in the tide one afternoon, accompanied by a dead man presumed to be her father. What’s a childless (and virtually marooned) married couple to do?
“It can’t just be a coincidence that she showed up,” pleads the wind-swept Isabel, who has recently suffered not one, but two, late-term miscarriages. “She needs us. We’re not doing anything wrong.”
When these last five words are whispered onscreen from one beautiful face to another, one can conclude with near certainty that the opposite is true — and that’s usually part of the fun in witnessing the drama that unravels. But in a film about the ethical consequences of raising somebody else’s child, such a frothy ploy for pathos soon dissolves.
Based on the novel by M.L. Stedman, barely a blink or close-up clutch goes unaccompanied by plinky piano music or soaring strings, and none of the master actors casted are granted the complexity of character they deserve. But more troubling is how the film suggests, as do so many (implicitly or overtly), that motherhood redeems all and can undo the anguish of the past — whether the battle scars of war or the recent graves of their unborn infants. “She doesn’t belong to us. We can't keep her,” warns Tom as his wife coddles the babe under lamplight. Unsurprisingly, once little “Lucy” coos her way into the couple’s hearts and Tom gives in to his wife’s demands, their marriage is saved and the waters calmed. The joys of instant parenthood are honored in scenes of swinging under a tree and stacking colorful tin toys upon a white porch.
Life floats on this way for years until, during a visit to the mainland, Tom spots a woman (Rachel Weisz) weeping beside her husband’s grave, the tombstone for a German surname which also reads “lost at sea” — just like the dead guy curled up beside his heaven-sent daughter! Moral tumult ensues. “Light” squanders much of its time on sleepy contemplations of the tide hitting rocks, the sun off the sea and the sky meeting the sun. Were it not for the occasional soulful exchange between varying members of this trio, the movie would resemble a meditation montage. Even Isabel’s wedding-eve deflowering, which should be super-sexy in period-piece terms (if a bit on the nose — losing one’s virginity inside a lighthouse), is woefully tame, as are the portrayals of her lost pregnancies.
Vanity Fair’s Eugenia Peretz recently lauded the movie as “the kind of wrenching adult melodrama Hollywood rarely makes these days,” but I couldn’t help thinking back to “Danish Girl” out less than a year ago, an equally surface-skimming film (perhaps worse by virtue of being based on a true story) for which Vikander won an Oscar playing another ardent wife betrayed. Any depth exhibited by Cianfrance in his 2010 debut “Blue Valentine” (also about a troubled marriage) comes to nought when all it takes to transcend trauma is a sweet little baby and a scenic view. It may be that “[w]hen it comes to the ocean, anything is possible,” but, for as much as we like to believe it in fairy tales and movies, children do not materialize from thin air (or saltwater), and embracing this fable comes with a cost.
Which is to say, for all its maudlin escapism, the film sheds light on enduring concerns about motherhood, biology, and parental rights almost a century after it is set. Twice denied the chance to carry her children to term, Isabel has no doubt that the surprise child that shows up is her divine right after all she’s suffered. That Lucy (ironically “Grace” to her original parents) is eventually torn from her new family and returned to her birth mother Hannah (in one of the film’s few potent, and believable, scenes) says less about the claims of biological motherhood and more for the power of money and influence in the equation. It’s no accident that Hannah is daughter to “the richest man in town” and has the means to press charges, hire a lawyer, and reclaim what has been taken from her. Were the birth mother an impoverished seamstress or working-class shopgirl bearing a love child with a German soldier, it’s doubtful any legal efforts to regain Grace would have succeeded; it would have been more likely seen in the child’s interest to grow up on Janus island with two loving parents, a modest income, and chickens, goats and sea crabs as ever-eager playmates.
It is here that the film feels both painfully realistic and ridiculous; affluent (especially white) women still hold a decisive advantage in the sheer variety of ways to become mothers (whether via IVF or domestic or international adoption) but at the same time, adoption typically means a class jump up, not down. Children are still treated as veritable commodities in a for-profit adoption industry less regulated than real estate. The moral ambiguities and anxieties around "saving" children through adoption abound, something “Light” touches upon but doesn’t dive into.
“You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day,” says Hannah in her decision to grant clemency to the Sherbournes. It’s a powerful claim, but a fatuous one; forgiveness is as often a daily choice as it is a seaside epiphany. That only Hannah luxuriates in the balm of forgiveness eclipses the extent to which her daughter would likely wrestle with the process herself — not only with the fact of being a stolen baby, ripped from one home to another, but also with the trauma five years later when returned to a biological parent she could not remember.
But to follow the romantic narrative of not just restored motherhood, but also the ever-adaptable child who with a little love (and a well-heeled family) turns out just fine (see “Annie,” “The Blind Side,” countless Disney films), Lucy Grace is a vision of mid-century stability in the end, with an adorable tot of her own. When she returns to visit Tom in his old age, hoisting her baby onto his lap, she bears not a trace of grief or loss — a far cry from the real experience of many adoptees for whom questions of identity and belonging haunt much of their lives. The New York Times’s Stephen Holden claims that the film “never wavers in its commitment to examine what it means to raise a child,” and I suppose if raising a child means daisy chains, horseback riding, and tea parties on the beach, then he would be correct. But the complexities of parenting — especially parenting a child who’s lost her mother not once, but twice — are less picturesque than the movie’s screensaver vistas.
“To have any kind of a future you've got to give up hope of ever changing your past,” writes Tom to his beloved early in the film. But acceptance of the past doesn’t mean the ability to outright forget about it — something that Tom and Isabel effortlessly do in the presence of their dear Lucy. No mention of their miscarried children, no flashbacks to war for Tom, nor to Isabel’s brothers killed in the trenches. The child saves all, and yet somehow the parents still get to play rescuers, made even more sympathetic once that child is taken away. But outside this cinematic fantasy of parent/child life-raft, neither side really escapes the choppy waves, and stories that imply otherwise leave all in the dark.