Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz star in Derek Cianfrance’s period melodrama about a childless couple that finds a newborn washed ashore.
The cathartic pleasures of a good old-fashioned weepie are promised and then never delivered in Derek Cianfrance’s handsome but curiously lifeless The Light Between Oceans.
That’s not to say copious tears aren’t shed onscreen. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander do lots of moist emoting — she with chin aquiver, he through stoically clenched jaw — as a couple who find a baby off the coast of Western Australia after World War I, raise her as their own and later are forced to return her to her biological mother (Rachel Weisz). Yes, there are worse ways to spend a few hours than watching two of our prettiest performers swoon in each other’s arms. But the film, poised awkwardly between costume-drama prestige and all-out schmaltz, is so busy sweeping us up in a swirl of music, scenery and beautiful, suffering faces that it forgets to do the actual work of earning our emotions.
Some of the best melodramas — from irresistible tearjerkers like Stella Dallas, The Way We Were and Terms of Endearment to modern masterpieces like Million Dollar Baby and Brokeback Mountain — revolve around characters so rich and relatable that we feel no shame in sniffling, or sobbing, along at their hardships. Others are spiked with humor (All About My Mother) or laced with irony (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life). Many — all of the above, in fact — are rooted in reality, telling tales of economic struggle, single motherhood, racism, homophobia or disease. These are movies that make masochists of us, filling us with the ache of loss, regret or sacrifice until it hurts so good we want to watch all over again.