Writer-director Derek Cianfrance loves making movies about doomed romances and parents who make mistakes but are redeemed through their children. Even though this is his third feature-narrative and it’s an adaptation of an Australian woman’s 2012 novel, the movie in many ways feels like Cianfrance took his two previous narratives and combined them to make this seemingly lesser version. It does feel like a remake of Blue Valentine (2010) and The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), but set down under and almost 100 years ago. Unlike Blue Valentine, which remains Cianfrance’s most assured work, this movie moves and pivots around a gimmick. Even in Cianfrance’s naturalistic hands, the contrivance of that gimmick is still very much perceived.
Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave and Steve Jobs) stars as Tom Sherbourne, the lighthouse keeper for Janis Island, a tiny piece of land off the coast of Australia. He’s a former soldier in World War I who wants a quieter life, which he gets in spades on the island. He’s the only resident of it, so for the opening reel of this film, it’s just an expression of isolation and loneliness, a prison of sorts without bars.
Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl and Ex Machina) also stars as Isabel Graysmark, a young woman who easily falls in love with Tom and eventually marries him. She’s a lovely girl who adjusts to life on Janis Island without anyone else around quite easily. One gets the impression that despite living with her family, she too was living a somewhat isolated life. Through a series of tragic circumstances, she adopts a baby girl that was left adrift at sea after the baby’s father dies.
Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardner and The Mummy) co-stars as Hannah Roennfeldt, the biological mother of the baby girl that Isabel adopts. Hannah thinks though that both the baby and her husband died at sea. Even when she sees her daughter in the arms of Isabel, she doesn’t realize it. Isabel of course pretends that she is the biological mother and keeps the truth a secret from Hannah. However, Hannah starts to get clues that her baby is alive, which gives her hope and urges her to get the police involved. Otherwise, she’s just walking grief.
The first half of the film follows Tim and the build-up of his and Isabel’s crime, which is a bit of the structure of The Place Beyond the Pines. The second half follows Hannah for the most part, as she tries to get her daughter back. Both halves deal with grief, but, as each half plays out, there seems to be no weight to any of it. All three actors are very good. Even the toddler who eventually plays the little daughter is brilliant, but Cianfrance doesn’t provide enough meat to this story. I’m not impressed to sit and watch Vikander and Weisz cry for the better part of two hours, or at least that’s not enough for a good movie.
There’s potential meat in the bigotry that Hannah’s German husband experiences, but even Cianfrance doesn’t care enough about it to make it as any thing other than a plot point. From the moment that Tom and Isabel decide to keep a baby that wasn’t theirs, the obvious, emotional wrenching scene of them losing that baby becomes predictable and thus ineffective. Cianfrance even tries to build a climactic choice for Isabel to make, but Cianfrance rather lets the air out of the bag like a whoopi cushion with no real consideration of it on her part. The movie just cuts to a ridiculous scene where Isabel is running to catch Tom.
To me, it was a bit of weak ending because in the end both Tom and Isabel felt absolved without ever allowing us to feel the consequences. They face consequences but we never felt them. Cianfrance probably made the coda a little too, syrupy sweet. I’m not opposed to a sweet ending, but again there’s not enough meat or substance here that makes the ending ultimately satisfying. It’s not like Losing Isaiah (1995), which Cianfrance’s second-half mimics. Losing Isaiah addressed an interesting racial question. This movie had a potentially provocative question, if Isabel would send her husband to prison in order to hold onto a child that wasn’t hers, but Cianfrance muddles it.
The Deep End of the Ocean (1999) deals with the exact, same premise as this movie. It even has a similar title. Except, it’s told exclusively from the point-of-view of the mother whose child was kidnapped. That gave The Deep End of the Ocean focus. That focus was on the family’s coping and readjustment. This movie does not have that same kind of focus. It’s all over the place, which may simply be a filmmaking quirk of Cianfrance, but, for me, The Deep End of the Ocean was better because it didn’t try to tell the love story of both parents and just confuse things, especially when the outcome is clear. This movie is actually guilty of the same thing as the recent, horror film Don’t Breathe. It makes the moral question too slanted in one direction. The Deep End of the Ocean did a better job of not making the morality or the solution clear. It balanced things better than Cianfrance does.
Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sexual content.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 13 mins.