Janus Island, despite its rocky hilltops, patches of farmland and ample beaches, can't be found on a map. That's because it doesn't exist. But to be fair to Janus, most real-life remote islands aren't easy to find on maps either, unless you know what you're looking for.
The gorgeous new period drama The Light Between Oceans does know what it's looking for. Set on the fictitious Janus, which lies some distance from the Australian coast, the film understands the romance and the mystique that arises from picturesque isolation. Literature's greatest names have long routed their heroes to islands, and the movie demonstrates the setting's great durability. It builds a gripping morality play, with characters as fierce and hardened as the choppy waves that crash onto the shore from all directions.
The lighthouse keeper on this godforsaken paradise is Tom, played by Michael Fassbender with tight lips and a weary stare. He's a stoic World War I veteran with no family and a fat ton of survivor's remorse. These qualities would seem to make him the ideal candidate for such a solitary gig, but lighthouse keepers, we're told, fare better when they have companions to help tend to the chores. (The previous one had conjured images of his dead wife to keep him company.) So it's good for work when Tom quickly falls for Isabel (Alicia Vikander), the pretty young woman in the closest port town who's OK with the isolation — and the broken piano in the keeper's house — but desperately wants a family. Two heartbreaking miscarriages follow, with silent funerals as the island wind rattles the plain wooden crosses. The edge of the world seems to reject all attempts to populate it.
An unexpected gift soon washes ashore. It would be foolish to give away too much of what follows this divine intervention, but don't believe the ads for this movie billing it as a mere romance. Readers of the novel by M.L. Stedman, from which the film is adapted, will know what sorts of decisions await Tom and Isabel, both out on Janus where only God is around to judge, and back in town where the repercussions will grow over the years. The story is airtight, with not an action or background detail wasted. As a grieving mother on the mainland (Rachel Weisz) begins to factor into things, a fascinating spiritual element takes shape: What is the just and righteous decision, and what is the self-serving decision, and what if they are secretly the same?
The skill of the leads is such that we can ask these questions without straying too far from the film itself. Any number of readings are possible in the performances of the red-hot, perfectly cast Fassbender and Vikander, who each depict their characters as withdrawn even when they're being intimate, and who can open up deep rifts in their relationship without saying a word. At one crucial moment, Vikander lets out a scream of such primal fury, a wail of possession, that it shatters the bones. It's a selfish, even childlike reaction to something she herself did wrong, yet we never think of Isabel as a cheat. She's human, and her wounds are deep, and she's chosen the wrong way to fill them.
Director Derek Cianfrance previously made Blue Valentine, a time-scrambled tale of love gone wrong, and The Place Beyond the Pines, a multi-generational crime saga. In the past, he has favored an intense, often furious brand of imagery that uses showy technique to approximate deep human emotion without ever quite arriving at real humanity. (Feel Ryan Gosling's pain! Feel it!) But here, Cianfrance has found material that complements him well, because the stripped-down story forces him to put his visual style to good use. He does wonders with closeups from behind, in three-quarter profile, setting the relationships between his leads off-kilter in subtle ways. And because setting your movie on an island is a waste if you can't bathe everything in natural light, he turns the film (shot on Tasmania and New Zealand) into magic-hour playtime.
The Light Between Oceans drifts off-course in the ending, which drags on for one epilogue too many and operates under the ancient Hollywood sailor's mistaken belief that a touch of schmaltz cures all wounds. Yet the film remains an uncharted island of gripping narrative power and visual splendor, beckoning us to dock at its shore.