MOVIE BUFF-ET: The Light Between Oceans offers well-acted, somber morality tale

Perhaps our greatest coping device as humans is our ability to rationalize tragic and awful conditions in order to make our way through the rigors of life. However, we can also use those powers of rationalization to submerge our conscious when our desires wage war with wisdom and honesty.

Director Derek Cianfrance admirably displays the anatomy of a bad decision in his latest film The Light Between Oceans, which stars Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander as a couple who tend to a lighthouse on a small island off the shore of Australia.

It’s a very human story, relatable despite its heightened qualities. We’ve all made selfish decisions despite our better judgment, and many of us have enabled the bad choices of others out of what we might rationalize as love but is really fear of losing that loved one.

Fassbender plays World War I veteran Tom who takes the job because he is seeking isolation after returning from the war. He will be alone on the island situated where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet save for spare visits from his employers when they deliver supplies.

However, Tom meets Isabel (Vikander) when interviewing for the job. There is an obvious attraction between the two. They think of each other often during Tom’s first six months at the lighthouse. On his first visit ashore, Isabel contrives a picnic date, where she suggests they marry. Shortly thereafter the nuptials are arranged, and Isabel moves to the lighthouse.

Isabel wants nothing more than to be a mother to Tom’s children, but two miscarriages leave the couple in despair. When Tom finds a dingy grounded on the craggy shore, its passengers are a dead man and a baby girl.

Isabel takes the baby from Tom, and he and the audience knows instantly that Isabel has not intention of giving the baby up. And here the moral and psychological dilemma begins. Will the couple give up the baby to the authorities or will they mount a cover-up and keep the child as their own?

Fassbender nails the faux stoicism of Tom, who knows the right thing to do, but is fearful of losing the one who gives his life purpose if he stands his ground. Vikander’s Isabel, too, knows what the couple should do, but she rationalizes that fate brought her and castaway baby together, and feels that this opportunity is her only hope of being a mother.

Their performances evoke empathy and understanding for the couple. Isolated on the island, the two become at ease with their choice, but on a visit inland to Isabel’s parents several years later, and a chance encounter with a grieving woman changes all that for Tom.

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The film, based on M. L. Stedman’s 2012 novel of the same name, plays out realistically. The climax is touching, but the story isn’t a Hallmark romance.

The movie is beautifully shot, featuring somber grey skies, lush green hills and a foreboding seacoast with the requisite crashing waves. The look and feel Cianfrance achieves befits the melodrama; however, the film plays out so conventionally that the story lacks much tension or emotional punch. Any viewer could tell you exactly where this voyage is headed from watching the trailer with very little deviation.

That being said, Vikander is excellent in the movie as is Fassbender despite the soap-opera details of their story. Their performances remain true when they could have gone overboard. They make the film worth watching, but their commitment to the characters also makes you wish they had spent their time on a more interesting project.

Grade: B.

Classic Corner

Young Frankenstein

The passing of Gene Wilder last week wasn’t as much a shock or a surprise as it was uncomfortable news. Having not worked since a couple of guest appearances on Will & Grace in 2003, Wilder certainly wasn’t forgotten, but his contributions might not have been at the forefront of our pop-culture collective consciousness.

But for movie fans — particularly those who dote on the films of the 1970s and early ’80s — Wilder will always be fondly remembered. His collaborations with Mel Brooks remain comedy gold. From the zaniness of The Producers, co-starring Zero Mostel, to the boundary-breaking hilarity of Blazzing Saddles and the dark yet whimsical charm of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Wilder tickled our funny bones with a combination of arch and low humor that few stars had the capability of pulling off.

Men found him funny and women found him curiously sexy, and that combination made him a bankable box-office draw for more than a decade. He made four films with Richard Pryor, and all were hits. He also co-wrote and directed several of his films making him a triple threat. He was nominated for two Academy Awards — Best Supporting Actor in The Producers and Best Adapted Screenplay for Young Frankenstein — and two Golden Globe Awards — Best Actor for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and Silver Streak. He won an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor for his role as Dr. Stein on Will & Grace.

Wilder’s films in the early 1980s were not the commercial hits that his ‘70s movies were, but the parody films that he and Brooks pioneered become a genre studios still rely upon today.

Turner Classic Movies is running Young Frankenstein at 11:30 p.m. central Friday, Sept. 9. The channel is also saluting the actor on Thursday, Sept. 29, dedicating the evening to the star. Young Frankenstein will also air on the big screen in select theaters on Wednesday, Oct. 5, with a special introduction by Brooks, who co-wrote the movie with Wilder and directed the movie.

I personally find Blazzing Saddles and The Producers funnier films than Young Frankenstein, but no matter, the parody of the first three Universal Studios Frankenstein movies of the 1930s owns at least a half dozen truly hilarious scenes, even to viewers who know little about the source material.

Aided and abetted by Marty Feldman as Igor, Peter Boyle as the Monster, Teri Garr as Inga, Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher, and Madeline Kahn as Elizabeth, Wilder and Brooks lovingly send up 1931’s Frankenstein, 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, and 1939’s Son of Frankenstein.

While you don’t have to have seen any of the three to get a jolt out of Young Frankenstein, knowing those movies, which featured Boris Karloff as the monster, only makes the parody even funnier.

A family could waste a couple of evenings in a worse way than by watching those four films as a final farewell to a man whose films gave the world so much to laugh about.