Which is not to say that The Light Between Oceans is a total loss. It is, at least, handsome, a post-Great War drama shot way, way Down Under, under the direction of Derek Cianfrance. His prior films, Blue Valentine (2010) and The Place Beyond the Pines (2013), were strictly bridge and tunnel, and the thought of getting away to locations in Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand, dressed in period regalia, must have appealed to him. Favoring the discoveries of improvisation, he hasn’t left his past work behind. Co-star Alicia Vikander was blindfolded and led to the lighthouse where much of the action takes place, with the cloth removed only as the cameras rolled, to capture her reaction as her character, a newcomer to its remote shores, might. But the light is a problem.
In interviews Cianfrance has (jokingly) called the film a fusion of John Cassavetes and David Lean. Beyond Vikander’s introduction to the forbidding confines of Janus Rock, there’s not much evidence of the former (the plot-thick source novel, heavy on contrivances numbingly played out, undoubtedly saw to that) and too much of the latter–not the trim and efficient Lean of the romantic classic Brief Encounter (1945) but the none-too-lean Lean of Ryan’s Daughter (1970), spending months on location awaiting just the right cloud formations. Cianfrance and his cinematographer, Adam Arkapaw, fell hard for the brightness and the water and the vistas, and we do, too, for a few minutes anyway. After the 30th cutaway to “magic hour” splendor, however, enough’s enough.
The lightshow does distract, however, from the tundra of the story. Stoically shattered by the war in Europe, Tom Shelbourne (Michael Fassbender) welcomes a solitary life as a lighthouse keeper far from home. The work, and the wind, and the barrenness have driven former occupants mad, yet for a time it keeps his troubled thoughts at bay. No man being an island, he finds comfort with a woman from the nearest port, Isabel (Vikander), who quickly consents to be his wife. Isabel has her own wartime demons, having lost two brothers overseas. She sees marriage, and children, as a chance for renewal.
The happy union flounders on miscarriages. (The movie thrives on them, one during a howling, Thomas Hardy-level storm.) Isabel’s determination to have them threatens their life together, when, by chance, an infant washes up on their beach. Overjoyed, Isabel convinces a skeptical Tom to raise the girl as their own, and for some time the ruse works. That is, until a family trip to the mainland arouses the suspicions of Hannah (Rachel Weisz), who lost her husband and baby girl at sea four years earlier. Guilt and recrimination spiral, less in the messy tumult of Cassavetes the truthteller and more in the vein of a plodding two-part PBS Masterpiece.
Part of it is Cianfrance’s adaptation, which holds few real surprises, and concludes with an unsatisfactorily vague coda. As Tom, Fassbender’s usual tightly wound intensity is meant to contrast with Isabel’s more reckless spirit, which Vikander depicts rather dutifully. I know she’s an Oscar winner, I know she’s Our Next Big Thing, and I’m not getting her. (I struggled mightily with The Danish Girl, so, no sale there.) Her coolly unknowable android in Ex Machina seems to have showed a lot of her cards; she’s vague, or drab, or a bit lost in most everything she’s been in since (including Jason Bourne), and the offscreen chemistry she shares with her co-star doesn’t come across. This is a tricky thing: Warren Beatty and Annette Bening had it big time in Bugsy (1991), then lost it by Love Affair three years later. Radiance is something she lacks, however. She needs something light, and not this Light, where everyone suffers in a “based on a bestseller” way that Cianfrace is unable to subvert. Props, though, for giving small roles to two stalwarts of the local cinema, Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown.
Shorts: Between dire comedies, VOD crap, and movies that don’t come off despite his best efforts (like his late-period Cary Grant turn in The Intern) I can understand you giving up on Robert De Niro. The lively if cluttered Roberto Duran biopic Hands of Stone is at least mildy redemptive, with the star pulling himself together and giving a tough-minded, disciplined, old school performance as trainer Ray Arcel, who reluctantly leaves retirement behind to coach the wary Panamanian prizefighter, charismatically portrayed by Edgar Ramirez. (De Niro played his father-in-law in Joy.) This being an approved story, the infamous “no mas” episode that derailed the fighter is left hazy (the phrase is used only in passing, pointedly not by Duran) and the movie almost cleaves into three separate biopics, Duran’s, Arcel’s (he has a secret past), and opponent Sugar Ray Leonard’s (a forceful Usher Raymond, moving past music). I guess as a reward for all that fighting, Ramirez and Raymond get bedroom scenes with the hot Ana de Armas (Mrs. Duran) and Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Mrs. Leonard), so Jonathan Jakubowicz’s movie has that going for it, too. (Plus small, choice parts for Ellen Barkin, as Mrs. Arcel, and John Turturro as a mobster in the fight game. The constant moviegoer appreciates these things.)
With The Secret Life of Pets, Finding Dory, The BFG, and Pete’s Dragon in release my kids had a good summer at the movies. Grownups, not so much. Standing out from a disappointing crop is the recession-wracked neo-noir Hell or High Water, which has been so hungrily embraced by critics I suspect it may strike some audiences as overrated. Maybe it is, a little–the dialogue is too “finished” and on the nose in places, and it may burn too slowly for anyone more accustomed to ADD storytelling. These are excusable faults, however, as it reveals itself first in inches, then in bursts of artfully directed action. I haven’t liked any movies from Scottish miserabilist David Mackenzie, and hated Sicario, also penned by Taylor Sheridan. Yet the stars aligned under Western skies (Mackenzie, unlike Cianfrance, doesn’t oversell the wide open spaces) and the story of two unalike brothers robbing banks to stave off foreclosure is resonant in numerous ways. A scrubbed up Chris Pine and the impossible to scrub clean Ben Foster manage compelling rapport between the siblings, whose life of crime is followed by a pair of mismatched Texas Rangers. They’re played with a long fuse by an understated Gil Birmingham (from the Twilight movies) and the great Jeff Bridges, who knows gold when he sees it and shines accordingly as an aging roughneck. It’s grown on me since I saw it, and it will continue to.