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.

Macbeth

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Justin Kurzel has a single feature to his credit – Snowtown (2011), a harrowing, brutal, bleak retelling of an infamous Australian true crime case. Though hard to digest for some given the subject matter, it’s actually a remarkable and powerful film; in fact, it’s one of the finest this country has produced in recent times. For his second outing, Kurzel has made the audacious decision to move abroad to tackle a titan of English literature. But for Macbeth (2015) he’s surrounded himself with an A-list cast and some of the homegrown talent that contributed so heavily to Snowtown’s visceral impact, including cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and his brother and composer Jed Kurzel.

From its bloody opening battle, in which Macbeth pauses amidst the slaughter to ‘listen’ the supernatural prophecy of a trio of witches, to Macbeth’s final reckoning with his tortured mental capacities, Kurzel appropriates the gargantuan literary weight of Shakespearean tale-telling to birth a bold, cinematic statement. This new Macbeth seethes and rages; the instantly recognisable passages are all intact, passionately evoked with rage, despair and venom.  And it all feels fresh thanks to the extraordinary range of artists involved in bringing this literary titan to fruition. Arkapaw brought a bleak, ugly urban heartland to vivid life in Snowtown with remarkable, dead-eyed perception. Here he expands his range to make vivid this primordial, ancient world with its almost tangible cold, its haunted fields wreathed with creeping, misty fogs and both subtle and explicit, foreboding uses of red as a harbinger of bloodshed to come.

The performances are uniformly magnificent. Michael Fassbender is unquestionably one of the finest actor in cinema right now. He possesses exactly the kind of presence to bring an epic literary stalwart to life. The gravitas he brings to this interpretation of Macbeth and his turbulent journey from hero on the battlefield to shuddering, conscience-battered king is outstanding. Marion Cotillard is just as good as the venomous Lady Macbeth, her finest moment coming as Arkapaw’s camera hones in for a deep, penetrating gaze as she tearfully nears the end of her own manipulative reign. The deeply wrought emotional damage brought to bear on her is etched into every line and tear on her face.

The only negative of this aesthetically rich production? Subtitles might have been handy at times as due to some of the thick Scottish brogues and garbled enunciation, chunks are wonderful dialogue are often tattered and semi-indecipherable. This minor quibble aside, it’s the universality and timelessness of Shakespeare’s themes that bridge the centuries and colour the dramatic reverberations with a terrible kind of shimmering beauty. Everything rings true here – from the thought-provoking opacity of the thornier verbal patches through to the translucent motives of those drunk on the prospect of power – of fulfilling a destiny invented, protected and perverted within. Macbeth is one of the greatest of all literary works and though it’s tougher than ever to find an audience for something as weighty and challenging as this in today’s world, interpretations of timeless classic will always be of literary and cinematic value.