Life through the lens of a lighthouse

Life through the lens of a lighthouse

Review: The Light Between Oceans

(M) Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz

Australian author M.L. Stedman’s bestselling novel comes to life on screen as a harrowing portrayal of life through the lens of a lighthouse and the attendant who cares for it. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is a soldier who has returned from World War I and is looking for some solitude from the horrors of war.  He decides to take the position of the lighthouse caretaker on Janus Island (off the coast of Western Australia). He wants to leave behind the nightmares of his life but, after a brief encounter with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), he begins to reconsider the life of total isolation. During his time of seclusion and separation from his new-found love, a series of letters between them helps a flourishing romance to grow. After his first term in the lighthouse, Tom proposes to Isabel. Once they are married, they both live on Janus Island and their passionate adventure continues. The harsh beauty of the island provides them with their own private Eden, until tragedy encroaches on their paradise. As they travel through the trials of failed pregnancies, a unique twist of fate changes their lives forever. A row boat with a dead man and a malnourished, but living baby floats to shore. The decisions made by this young couple go on to have far reaching implications within a small Australian community.

The Light Between Oceans is like seeing a romance unfold through a prism, which makes it hard to categorise. Stedman’s historical love story provides a multi-dimensional glimpse into the hearts of the human experience. She has written a journey that exposes the impact of every decision made within a relationship has implications that reach beyond the relationship itself. Director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) has taken Stedman’s novel and provides a masterful and measured approach to this unsettling, but captivating lesson in the human condition. His independent film pedigree allows this seasoned director to be comfortable uncovering all areas of relationships, which can be quite unsettling when it is packaged as a romance. This combination of writing and direction make for a uniquely beautiful, but raw look at life.

Fassbender and Vikander have an uneasy chemistry that plays out perfectly against the grey hues of the ocean and island landscape. Both of their characters have experienced the pains of war and for them to love, they have to move past the pain. These popular actors convey the passion of a new relationship by mixing in the necessary vulnerability to make it believable. Allowing for these relational imperfections to occur provides a refreshing option to the sort of storylines found in a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. If this couple is not compelling enough, Cianfrance manages to surround them with an amazingly understated cast of Academy Award winners and some of the best acting talent to come out of Australia. Rachel Weisz’s (Oz: The Great and Powerful) performance as a grieving mother and widow shows her consummate ability to encapsulate each role she is given. Adding Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson into the mix provides the flavouring that makes the bittersweetness of the story appealing.

It can be said that a key element of Australian literature and film is the consistent celebration of the tragic side of life. This is true of The Light Between Oceans, but this dose of reality should not deter audiences from experiencing this beautifully, heartbreaking drama.


What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film?

“You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day.” Where is your limit for forgiveness? One of the key themes of The Light Between Oceans is the concept of forgiveness. On-screen, people are put into challenging situations that push them to the edge of considering the boundaries of forgiveness. Two things to consider  are the limits of forgiveness and why should we forgive at all. It can be said that resentment only hurts the one that holds onto it. The Bible has much to say on this topic, this might be a good place to start when considering some the concepts from this film.


Passages on defining forgiveness: 

Psalm 103:10-14, Matthew 6:14-15 & 18:21-22, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:27, 37; Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13 , 1 John 1:9


Russell Matthews works for City Bible Forum Sydney and is a film blogger



1 thought on “Life through the lens of a lighthouse”

  1. I saw this excellent film last night. It’s generally been positively reviewed around the world, which it deserves, and I think that those critics who don’t like it have never had to deal with grief. If they did, they’d not be so dismissive of the deeply emotional undertone that carries the film along.

    The film brings grief and guilt together in an atmosphere of isolation and passion to explore how people make decisions and what the consequences might be. The main character, Tom, is grieving, for he has just returned from World War 1. All the people in the town are grieving, for many of their family and friends have not returned from World War 1. Isabel seems to lift the sense of grief, but then experiences it deeply. While her response brings great happiness, it also cuts across the grief of another woman and brings into play the guilt of her husband, setting in train a classic tragedy.

    Lest this sounds too dire to watch, let me assure you that the child at the centre of this drama becomes, in the end, the light between these oceans of grief and gives us some sense of hope and resolution. It’s not a “feel good” ending, but a “there is good to be felt” sort of outcome.

    So, to the US based reviewer who called this a chick flick dressed up as art, I say ‘that’s rubbish’. It’s deeper and more profound than that.

    (Plus all the things that Russell said in his review. Except I didn’t like Rachel Weisz in this at all.)

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