4 Stars – Powerful
Deceit is seldom something we set out to do. Instead, we sometimes find ourselves presented with a difficult situation complicated by conflicting forces and choose to do something we know is wrong but decide to do it anyway for a variety of reasons. The result of such a choice is that we then have to cover it up. Lying, deceiving, burying the truth, we try to convince ourselves that we’ve done nothing really wrong as we attempt to enjoy our ill-gotten gain. But we soon discover that our happiness is built on a moral cancer that eats at our souls. This moral dilemma is the theme of Derek Cianfrance’s film The Light Between Oceans.
Based on the novel of the same name by M.L. Stedman, the setting is off the coast of Australia on a small island where a lighthouse guides the ships through the turbulence of the intersection of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. This visually tempestuous setting for the film underlies the power of its message. Isolated and disconnected from the mainland, the island both reflects and creates the lives of those who are assigned to keep the light burning.
This extreme isolation had caused mental illness in the previous keeper, so a new keeper is hired. Into this life of isolation comes the new lighthouse keeper, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), who has just returned from serving four years on the western front of the war. A quiet and brooding man who is recovering from his war experiences, he is attracted to the young and vivacious Isabel (Alicia Vikander), whose brothers had been killed in that war. As we watch their romance blossom in the most unusual of circumstances, we see them heal from their sorrows as they marry and begin their life together on the island. However, we soon grieve with them when Isabel’s two pregnancies end in premature still-births, due in part to their isolation and the absence of medical care. We feel the emptiness of their hearts as their cherished hopes are buried and marked by small wooden crosses on a knoll above their cottage in the shadow of the lighthouse.
But coincidentally or as providence would have it, the very next day while experiencing the depth of their grief, a rowboat with a crying baby and a dead man aboard floats into shore by their home. Recognizing that they have a legal responsibility to report the discovery to their government employers, they nevertheless collude to keep this baby girl as their own child. It is this choice that creates the emotional currents and moral dilemmas which flow through this tale.
Creating a lie and misrepresenting her to their family, they introduce young Lucy (Florence Clery) as their own. Coincidentally at Lucy’s christening, Tom discovers the truth about her identity yet hides it from Isabel, their family and the town. But his conscience won’t let go of him. Like the tell-tale heart that longs to come clean from its crime, his heart and a few years later Isabel’s heart as well are not able to hold the lie.
This is most often the way of deceit. We try to convince ourselves that we can lie, take advantage of others and still be happy. But true happiness is based on living in truth and freedom from guilt, fear or regret. Tom is therefore driven to risk discovery in a desire to assuage his guilt. This act creates the circumstances in which their crime is revealed.
At this point in the film, the story shifts focus onto the grief, resentment and vengeance of the young mother whose child has finally been returned. Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz) is the daughter of the coastal village’s wealthiest citizen. Having lost her beloved husband and child at sea, she has grieved for four years only to discover that the Sherbournes have taken and hidden her illegally. But now Hannah has a daughter who at four loves Tom and Isabel as her parents and wants nothing to do with her biological mother. Hannah’s grief turns from simple sorrow to a complexion of anguish and anger when she cannot win her daughter’s trust or affection. Being a loving and good person, she now struggles to follow her deceased husband’s counsel to forgive because: “You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day.”
How Hannah, Tom, and Isabel resolve the moral dilemmas this story presents takes us on a journey of looking deeply into how we make our moral choices based on truth, love and forgiveness rather than fulfilling selfish desires through deception and revenge.
The intersections of life where sorrow and opportunity collide are often the places of great temptation as well as great courage. The Light Between Oceans is a study of both, powerfully expressed in a visual and compelling tale that speaks not only to the outward actions we do, but also the inward life we live. It is exploring this intersection that makes this a significant and insightful film.
- As you think back at your own life, when were you tempted to deceive someone for your own advantage. How did it end up? Did you confess or were you found out or are you still living with the guilt?
- Guilt has a way of making us do something to be found out. In Tom’s life, his love for Isabel did not overcome his desire to come clean for their crime. He was, however, willing to pay the legal price for both of them. Have you ever done something and then helped others to discover what you had done? Were you willing to protect others involved out of love and care for them?
- The innocent moment when deceit planted itself within Tom and Isabel’s hearts was not something they sought but rather came upon them unsolicited. How has temptation come in your innocent moments? What brought it into your life? How was your own sorrow woven into your response to become ensnared in it or to withstand it?