In 2012, Australian writer M.L. Stedman drew reader in with a story of Tom Sherbourne who returns from the brutality of World War I to take a job as a lighthouse keeper. He is accompanied by his wife Isabel who is the light in her husband’s life and wishes to start and raise a family with him on the remote Janus Island. After a number of failed pregnancies and despair at ever having children, a baby washes ashore in a boat. Despite his better judgement, Tom agrees to Isabel’s request to raise the little girl as their own. Only a return to the mainland two years later shows that their decision has serious consequences for all.
It easy to see why a studio thought the Stedman material was cinematic and could be a three hanky weeper. Producers brought in Derek Cianfrance to adapt a screenplay as well as direct the movie. Relationships crossing into dark territory is familiar territory for Cianfrance who wrote and directed Blue Valentine.
The casting for the movie brought in the exceptional acting talents of Michael Fassbender (Tom Sherbourne) , Alicia Vikander (Isabel Graysmark) and Rachel Weisz (Hannah Roennfeldt). It was during filming two years ago that Fassbender and Vikander became a couple. The chemistry between the two is obvious. Fassbender is familiar to Winnipeg people because very on in his now acclaimed career he played Harry Colebourn in the CBC movie A Bear Called Winnie which filmed in Manitoba. Vikander is the new it girl in Hollywood and was seen earlier this summer in Jason Bourne.
The movie is shot on location by Adam Arkepaw in the rarely seen Tasmania. The cinematography is breathtaking in its beauty and loneliness. The other worldliness of the lighthouse and the ocean far from the mainland is a compelling setting for our characters and the blissfulness of their romance is easily felt.
The solitude is also present with the growing number of little crosses representing two failed pregnancies. Vikander as Isabel is exceptional in capturing the emotions of the promise and loss of each child. The arrival of a rowboat washing ashore with a dead man and a new born presents our beleaguered couple with agonizing choices. Fassbender as Tom shows how his dedication to duty of crumbles in the face of his wife’s despair at losing the baby to an orphanage just because they followed the rules. Ultimately, they keep the little girl and name her Lucy.
The most unforgiving role in the movie belongs to Rachel Weisz (Hannah), the little girl’s real mother. It when Tom and Isabel return to the mainland for a visit and Christening of their child that Tom learns how their Lucy came to be in a rowboat. In the aftermath of World War I, antipathy towards people of German heritage still runs high and in one particularly ugly incident, a man and his newborn are driven into the sea to escape a mob. This leaves the grieving Hannah mourning their loss.
Tom is no longer able to deny the consequences of keeping Lucy once confronted with the truth. He anonymously writes Hannah to assure her little girl is safe and cared for. It has this moment that the movie becomes a love triangle and it is Lucy who is at the center of it. This is where the movie runs into problems.
The writer/director Cianfrance has to show that Hannah was not only a good wife but a good mother before losing both husband and child. The difficulty of this is how to do it with nuance and subtlety. The solution was the insertion of an origin story of Hannah’s romance with a German and their marriage and subsequent baby. The segments shown feel like an intrusion rather than imparting information and a long movie gets even longer.
The inevitable conclusion to this tragedy is that Tom’s tortured soul eventually results in the truth coming out. The beautiful scenery, talented actors and the very good score of Alexandre Desplat are never able to overcome the fall-off in drama towards the end. There is no villain except the failure of good intentions. It is difficult to say whether the Stedman book could be adapted without veering away from the source material to create more complex characters and a more sweeping storyline. This is unfortunate because a lighthouse keeper, his wife and a boat washed up shore still sounds like a promising tale.
This has been an editorial by John Dobbin.
To read more from John, visit his blog Observations, Reservations, Conversations