It was indeed a hilarious start to the media conference for Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans at the ongoing Venice Film Festival on Thursday, when a bubbly young Italian journalist asked: “I have a question for Mr Michael Fassbender (who plays the male lead, Tom Sherbourne ) because I would like him to look into my eyes. Amidst laughter, she continued: “I think this is the very first role in which you play a family man. Is this a rehearsal?”
If Fassbender went hot with embarrassment, he concealed it well by quipping that “everything is a rehearsal”.
The movie was shot on Cape Campbell, a really small, wind-swept peninsula in New Zealand in 2014, and perhaps the romance of the place must have played Cupid to Fassbender and his leading lady, Alicia Vikander -- who essays Isabel the screen. They have remained a couple since then, not married though, not as yet.
Both actors had a great word for each other. While Vikander felt that Fassbender’s support helped her enormously to essay a mother in the film (”which I am not in real life”), he thought that “she was so fierce and hungry that it helped. It was something that it’s always a great thing to see in an actor who is coming on, getting an opportunity who hasn’t been well known yet”.
The Light Between Oceans is, above all this, a “battle between truth and love” -- as Cianfrance (known for works like Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines) described his work.
Indeed, the movie is all about the moral dilemma that Tom and Isabel face as they get married and live in small island, Janus Rock, off western Australia, in the years following 1918. Based on a best-selling novel by ML Stedman’s, also called The Light Between Oceans, the film looks mesmeric and tells a heartbreaking story.
Tom comes to Janus Rock as a lighthouse keeper, a spot that is completely isolated. Wounded physically and mentally by World War I, Tom seeks absolute solitude, but meets Isabel, who lives in a town across the island. Having lost two of her brothers in the war, she is lonely and desperate for love, and two seem like made for each other. They get married after a courtship across the stormy waves of the sea.
They want to start a family, but fate comes in the way. Isabel loses two of her children, and then one night, Tom finds a drifting boat at sea that has a dead man and an infant girl, surprisingly alive. The couple pass through a moral dilemma, questioning each other whether they should report the matter to the police or just keep quiet -- and raise the child as their own. While the husband would rather adopt the child after notifying the police, the wife implores him to remain quiet and pass off the little one as their own.
Watch the trailer of The Light Between Oceans here:
Five years later, however, things take a tragic turn when Tom runs into the child’s real mother who assuming that her husband and child were lost at sea, is a grieving wreck. For Tom, this could not have been more morally disturbing, and turns himself over to the police, despite Isabel’s vehement pleas not to do so.
Fine performances etched out against the magical scenery of the sea and the sand, The Light Between Oceans is emotionally draining and painful -- and provokes a debate in us, the debate about right and wrong. But ultimately as the director told the conference, his work was all about forgiveness, and we see this so clearly even as the flicker from the lighthouse tries to help all those out at sea find their way to the shore. Tom does this, helping the child’s biological mother unite with the baby girl -- even as he let his and Isabel’s lives plunge into gloom.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Venice Film Festival.)