With a sweeping, picturesque setting and emotive performances, this dramatic epic will appeal to moviegoers who enjoy beautiful imagery and weepy romance. On the other hand, those who get easily annoyed at melodrama will find all of this a bit thin and pushy. Still, no one will deny that it looks gorgeous, and that the cast performs with raw emotional intensity.
Set just after the Great War, the film follows shellshocked veteran Tom (Michael Fassbender), who has taken over the job as the lighthouse keeper and sole resident of the tiny island of Janus, where the Pacific and Atlantic meet. In the nearest town, 100 miles across the sea, he meets the beautiful Isabel (Alicia Vikander), marries her and moves her to the island with him. But their blissful happiness is shaken when she suffers two harrowing miscarriages. So it seems like fate is intervening when a boat washes ashore with a crying baby, which Tom and Isabel secretly adopt and pass off as their own daughter. Then a few years later Tom discovers the baby’s real mother Hannah (Rachel Weisz) in town, and they’re forced to grapple with the moral issues.
Tom, Isabel and Hannah all face increasingly difficult decisions as this story unfolds, and the events push every button carefully, removing much of the complexity from the situation. It’s painfully clear what must happen, and many scenes are darkly disturbing as a result, especially as characters turn on each other, making some very selfish choices and showing unexpected compassion and understanding. Nothing that happens here is easy, and the actors invest the characters with plenty of passion, plus the complexity that’s lacking in the script. Fassbender is stoic, Vikander is wrenching and Weisz trumps them both with her sympathetic yearning. There’s also a terrific scene-stealing turn from the young Florence Clery as the daughter in question.
Writer-director Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines) tells this story with an emphasis on the imagery, capturing the dramatic locations with plenty of golden-hued sunshine and troubled seas. Every scene looks like a screen-saver, so it’s very easy to watch even as the plot becomes increasing tortured. The problem is that it never gets very deep, relying on the intense chemistry between real-life couple Fassbender and Vikander to hold the interest (which it does), rather than allowing the complex shadings of the situation to draw the audience in further. Instead, Cianfrance and composer Alexandre Desplat tell us exactly how we’re supposed to feel at every single moment. So it’s best not to fight it.