Though it’s set almost a century ago, The Light Between Oceans feels like a refugee from a more recent past—the misty, Miramax-y ’90s. The movie’s lushly shot melodrama so vividly recalls the wide-lens storytelling of that era that it’s not hard to picture Anthony Minghella pivoting straight from The English Patient or The Talented Mr. Ripley to make it. (Minghella died in 2008, but Derek Cianfrance, known for The Place Beyond the Pines and Blue Valentine, is a surprisingly good proxy.)
Michael Fassbender, all Errol Flynn hair and thousand-yard stares, stars as Tom,a soldier hollowed out by the horrors of WWI. Retreating to a remote lighthouse in his native Australia, he takes a pretty young wife, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), and slowly begins to come back to himself. The newlyweds are happy just to be left alone together on their rocky scrap of an island, but when a series of devastating miscarriages seems to end their dreams of a family, something happens that feels like pure fate to Isabel and a dangerous moral misstep to Tom: A baby girl washes ashore in a rowboat, the nameless man next to her already dead.
Do they report it, as Tom says they should, or do they risk the lie and raise her as their own? Answering that hardly requires having read the best-selling 2012 novel the film is based on, and it takes more than a little credulity to swallow the plot’s long string of improbabilities. Instead, Oceans aims to please in other ways: No stormy vista or rippling tuft of seagrass goes uncaressed by the camera, or profound feeling unexpressed by its disturbingly gorgeous cast. (Vikander especially is so luminous she might be the title’s actual source of light.) The whole thing is feverishly earnest and more than a little manipulative, but it’s also possibly the prettiest two hours of emotional masochism so far this year. B+