Staggeringly beautiful and just plain staggering, The Light Between Oceans begins in 1918 with its star-crossed hero, Tom (Michael Fassbender), returned to Australia from years in the bloody, muddy trenches of the First World War. What better way to heal, to reclaim some peace, than to take a temporary job as the keeper of a lighthouse on a windswept isle one hundred miles from anywhere. The solitude will do him good.
The six-month stint is extended, however, when the man for whom Tom's been subbing inconveniently kills himself. Would Tom consider staying on?
And would Tom consider marrying the beaming Isabel (Alicia Vikander), whom he first spies, frolicking with the gulls, on one of his rare visits to the mainland? Of course he would, of course she would. They're Fassbender and Vikander, after all.
Adapted from the best-seller by M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans is an epic weepie about fate and forgiveness, guilt and rage, and the timeless lure of hand-knit woolens. (It has been a long time since movie stars have sported such fine sweaters. Fassbender could single-handedly bring back the nubby turtleneck.)
Did we say weepie?
Just about the only cast member who doesn't go misty at one point or another is the horse that Down Under cinema charmer Bryan Brown takes for a trot late in the film.
Vikander cries. Fassbender cries. The little girl who washes up on the beach in a rowboat and that Tom and Isabel, wracked by miscarriages, claim as their own? A bawler. (And cute as a button, too.) And Rachel Weisz, the grief-stricken woman who believes her infant daughter and husband have drowned at sea, well, she's a veritable font.
Pretty sure I spotted a credit at the end of the movie for a tear-bucket grip.
It's kind of shocking to see that Derek Cianfrance, the writer and director of the tough-minded crime drama The Place Beyond the Pines (Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, the sins of the father, etc.) is the perpetrator of this steadfastly old-fashioned tragic romance.
True, his first big-deal feature, Blue Valentine (Michelle Williams and Gosling careering from heady first love to rueful dissolution), showed him to be a romantic at heart. But who knew his heart was made of mush?
The Light Between Oceans looks stupendous. Shot in New Zealand and Tasmania, the film opens with a vintage steam engine exhaling heartily as it chugs down the rails amid the most verdant and monumental of hills.
For this - and for the tuft of sea-battered rock, the slopes of grassy reeds where Tom and Isabel's lighthouse stands, the crashing waves, and rippling expanse of water - Cianfrance and his Australian cinematographer, Adam Arkapaw, must be commended. Mother Nature must be commended.
And Fassbender and Vikander must be commended, too. By magic-hour light, or by candlelight, or by the refracted sheen of giant clouds cast upon their finely chiseled mugs, they truly make a handsome pair. Weisz, aquiver with misery, also looks lovely. Tom and Isabel's cottage, with its simple wooden furniture, its upright piano (crippled and out of tune at first), its sewing machine and lanterns and big kitchen bowls - period-piece home-furnishing porn.
There are epistolary interludes in The Light Between Oceans: Tom writing letters to Isabel, Isabel writing letters to Tom, the respective voice-overs of Fassbender and Vikander, earnest, dulcet-toned, intermingled with the keening notes of Alexander Desplat's syrupy score.
And there are clichés - so many clichés you could fill a lighthouse-keeper's log with them. Good thing Tom has such fine penmanship. Good thing he's so diligent about keeping that log up to date, every event recorded.
"What have you done?" Isabel screams to Tom after he does something that will shatter the couple's married, parental bliss. What have you done, indeed?
The Light Between Oceans
**(Out of four stars)
yDirected by Derek Cianfrance. With Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz. Distributed by Touchstone/Dreamworks.
yRunning time: 2 hours, 12 mins.
yParent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes).
yPlaying at: Area theaters.