The Light Between Oceans

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From picturesque period romance to morose melodrama, Derek Cianfrance’s very fine latest film is suffused with melancholy, regret, and torment as it depicts the ethical dilemma of a couple transformed by love. Beginning in 1918, returning soldier, war-scarred loner Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), is happy to fill the breach when a lighthouse keeper position becomes available off the Western Australian coast. Nursing psychological scars from his time abroad, he yearns for a kind of therapeutic isolation. The methodical approach needed to perform his daily duties on Janus also has its attractions. In the closest town, where his arrangements are made, he’s drawn to the daughter, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), of a prominent local, Bill Graysmark (Garry McDonald). Before ever admitting to their feelings face to face, the pair exchange correspondence of the course of many months. Eventually, on one of his breaks from the lighthouse, Tom summons the courage to ask Isabel’s hand in marriage.

Initially their life on Janus is idyllic with location work at Cape Campbell in Marlborough, New Zealand providing a stunning, wind-blown backdrop. In time Isabel becomes pregnant. Their existence, though a secluded one, couldn’t be more filled with optimism. Naturally, though, a cruel twist of fate will irrevocably alter their lives when Isabel experiences difficulty at the end of her pregnancy and, isolated from Tom in the lighthouse during a massive storm, can’t get the help she needs to save her unborn child.

Based on Australian author M.L. Steadman’s novel, The Light Between Oceans (2016) is beautifully produced, beginning like a classic romantic epic before the bells of impending doom begin to sound. It’s at the midpoint that this key plot contrivance serves to completely alter the tone of the film. There’s no doubt that it’s a blatantly ludicrous event, but Cianfrance’s involving, earnest adaptation has already dragged us deep enough into its soulful clutches that audiences will likely overlook and forgive this unlikeliest of occurrences.

As he displayed with his last two features, firstly his anatomy-of-a-relationship-breakdown, Blue Valentine (2010) and then the ambitious but deeply flawed The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), Cianfrance’s visual style is always noteworthy. With the aid of another brilliant Australian artist, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, they often use gritty, handheld work, regularly shooting the actors in telling close-up, an emphatic style leavened by non-artificial light. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s unorthodox but striking approach to her Wuthering Heights (2011) adaptation, though not nearly as experimental. This intense scrutiny also accentuates Tom and Isabel’s harmonious but precarious relationship with their surroundings against which perspective can change quickly, putting a vastly different slant on the enormity of the natural world and the power it unconsciously wields.

Fassbender, especially, proves remarkable again for his ability to extract a deep well of emotional detail out of a few words or a glance. His presence is magnetic but never distractingly or overpoweringly so. At times there’s a picturesque emptiness to Vikander whose clearly lacks her co-star’s range but is still a believable embodiment of Isabel who undergoes quite a few emotionally- transformations. The introduction of the third main character, Hannah Roennfeldt, played typically with class and conviction by Rachel Weisz, is another positive.

Working in a realm in which he thrives and is now much sought after, composer Alexandre Desplat provides another classy score. It’s melodically sumptuous and yet a model of restraint, never allowing the emotional latitude of the narrative to inflect his themes with obvious, manipulative intent. Though there, is to some extent, a feeling of inevitability about the outcome, Cianfrance still has the ability to wring a few genuine emotional tugs of the heart out of us. In some ways The Light Between Oceans feels like a natural progression for him and perhaps his most mature work to date.

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Ex Machina

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Novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland’s much anticipated debut behind the camera is an inventive sci-fi tale of the multifaceted dangers of technology’s rampant progress and the potential for our own annihilation at its expense. Ex Machina (2015) is a cerebral chamber piece, and conclusive proof that the genre requires little in the way of big budget effects if the central narrative is strong enough. And in this case, Garland’s screenplay provides more than ample food for thought.

The film opens with the briefest of set-ups: a medium-rung programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is shown winning a coveted prize to spend a week with his mysterious employer, a genius in the field of artificial intelligence. Flown by helicopter to a remote location, he learns from Nathan (Oscar Isaac) that he will participate in a Turing test on his latest creation, the alluring Ava (Alicia Vikander). Each day Caleb interacts with her in a new session designed to explore her consciousness through the degree to which she can process ideas and initiate independent thought. Caleb is naturally in awe of Nathan’s creation and of Ava as a wilful individual to whom he’s unable to remain neutral. But is there another, more decisive factor motivating Nathan and his decision to allow Caleb into his inner sanctum?

Gleeson, who was excellent in the recent Frank (2014), does a wonderful job of expressing Caleb’s awe and wonder combined with an instinct for the darker potentialities lurking in the margins. The fact that he pulls it off with a convincing American accent adds further merit to his performance. Isaac continues his impressive recent run, and though he’s never been the type of magnetic, commanding actor you might have picked for this role, his ease in adopting Nathan’s strangely laid-back demeanour is convincing enough. Vikander too shines in a role that requires subtlety to reflect the human spark of inspiration behind the robotic heart of her true identity.

In his skilful manipulation of this three-hander, Garland leaves the motivations of each open to speculation. As the week inside the sterile facility progresses, the layers of division are stripped away and re-built, leaving us blissfully unsure of who, ultimately, is holding the upper hand. The drama and intrigue build wonderfully to a gloriously ironic crescendo, in which Garland is able to fuse his narrative skills with a genuine cinematic flair, not so surprising from a writer who has collaborated so often with a director as boldly visual as Danny Boyle. The denouement is magnificent, coming after a memorable final set-piece in which the rug is very effectively pulled out from under us.