If you ever were to pack-up your city dwellings and live a dutiful and solitary life as a lighthouse keeper, the 146 year-old fixture on New Zealand’s South island in Marlborough would be the place to retreat to. The cast iron tower surrounded by eroded rock and the choppy Cook Strait was one of 300 locations The Light Between Oceans director Derek Cianfrance recced prior to shooting the film in 2014.
The idea was for the lighthouse to look like Janus Rock in Western Australia, the picturesque landscape Australian author M. L. Stedman had envisaged to tell his redemptive tale of love in his novel of the same name. In the years following World War I, English soldier Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) seeks some isolation post his time on the Western front and is shipped off to Australia to mend his mind, a journey of 9896 nautical miles which would have taken no doubt months in 1918. The other place the film is shot is in Stanley in Tasmania, a small coastal town discovered in 1826 (and one where the first telephone cable from mainland Australia to Tasmania was fitted in the 1930s).
Known for his ability to get audiences to empathise with good people doing bad things, (“As a filmmaker, it was a great privilege to try to tell a story where the supposed villains are the people you love the most”) Cianfrance perfectly cast Alicia Vikander for the role of the spirited Isabel, the young wife to Tom (and would-be real-life girlfriend to Fassbender at the end of six weeks shooting). But when Isabel loses two babies to miscarriages, the couple experience a deep depression for the child they longed to have and the two they have lost. The harsh weather and isolation of the island only serves to feed this misery. “If a parent loses a child, there’s no special label for it”, a line delivered to set the audience up for what is to follow. The relationship development between Isabel and Tom as they meet and then only communicate through letters before marrying and trying for children is an interesting one and one I found completely rushed on screen. You want to believe in the completely consuming passion between the pair for the later fall; the one that abruptly thumps you back into the squishy groove of your cinema seat.
One day, an errant rowboat carrying a crying baby and a dead man washes up on the wind-bitten shore of Janus. Isabel convinces a disagreeing Tom to keep the child and raise her as their own. For years, it appears the perfect remedy until they come across their daughter’s biological mother, Hannah (Rachel Weisz) in the fictitious town of Partaguese. (In real life, this town is actually called Dunedin in NZ and shops and streets were transformed with vintage signage, horse drawn wagons and period automobiles. Some exterior shots were shot in Stanley, a town with a population of just 460, which was perfect for taking over and dressing up streets with little foot traffic and commotion.)
Tom, ridden in guilt and torn between the love for his wife and heartbreak for a grieving widow, confesses to the crime and is imprisoned. Isabel’s child is returned to Hannah and lives are broken. In the ultimate test of love, one where your heart bleeds for characters who have done the wrong thing for the right reasons, the ending will surprise you. There’s a poignant line in the story too about not holding onto resentment for it is a waste of time, a gentle reminder to every relationship even in this modern day. For when it comes to matters of the heart, love – if it is strong enough – can always triumph over every right and wrong mistake, even if it hurts so much.
The Light Between Oceans is in Australian cinemas November 3