A tragic romance on a remote island in 'The Light Between Oceans' (PG-13)

Muted color palette. Hushed voices above a murmuring sea. Soft-focus close-ups. A sky that ranges from slate-gray to pale blue. Performances so subdued you long for someone to shout.

Writer-director Derek Cianfrance knew he was dealing with a story full of coincidences when he adapted M.L. Stedman’s novel “The Light Between Oceans,” so he avoided melodrama by holding himself and his excellent actors in check. The result is a movie that crackles quietly without flaring up into an emotional blaze.

Tom Sherbourne has returned to western Australia after four years of World War I. He thinks he’ll be happiest alone, tending the lighthouse at Janus Rock, until he meets spirited Isabel Greysmark (Alicia Vikander). They move to the remote island in mutual joy, until a second miscarriage follows the first.

Soon after that, a rowboat containing a dead man and a live baby floats into view. Isabel insists they name the baby Lucy and raise her in blissful solitude, but Tom feels guilty about not seeking the mother. On a trip to town, he encounters her: gentle Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), daughter of the richest man along the coast.

Certain genres, most famously the Hispanic “magic realism” school, ask us to accept fantastic elements as an essential part of the narrative. But in “Oceans,” where Cianfrance sets forth every detail with the literalness of a Henry James novel, improbabilities interrupt the flow.

A German happens to be in remote Australia during World War I, where he not only remains in the community but weds the village belle. When menaced by an anti-German crowd, he flees them in a rowboat after grabbing his baby, then has a heart attack while he’s far enough out to sea that no one sees him. They float dozens of miles over days without mishap and wash up at the lighthouse, right after Isabel loses her second child. If your eyebrows aren’t raised in disbelief, this will be a tale for you.

The actors fan the fire as best they can. Michael Fassbender gets a rare chance to play a kindly chap whose love for his suffering wife inspires one terrible mistake. Vikander has a wide range, although Cianfrance often pulls the camera away or silences the soundtrack to reduce access to her emotions. 

Weisz enters the film late but makes an impact, as do veteran Australian character actors: Bryan Brown as her dad, Jack Thompson as a grizzled sea captain, Anthony Hayes as a policeman who eventually sees all sides.

Yet the picture reminded me of Roy Campbell’s poem about his fellow South Africans:

“You praise the firm restraint with which they write / I’m with you there, of course / They use the snaffle and the curb all right / But where’s the bloody horse?”

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson.

Writer-director: Derek Cianfrance. Based on the novel by M.L. Stedman.

A DreamWorks Pictures release. Running time: 133 minutes. Sexual situations, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.

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