Writer and director Derek Cianfrance blindsided audiences in 2010 when he released Blue Valentine. Announcing himself as a kind of sentimental hipster heir to John Cassavettes, Cianfrance concocted an emotionally raw and sexually frank experience that managed to find something like beauty in hopelessness. His follow up, The Place Beyond the Pines, was very much a growing artist’s second attempt. It lost the urgency of his debut in its wild ambition, but it was a fascinating failure, remarkable for its grasping scope.
The classic narrative would lead one to suspect that Cianfrance’s third feature would fuse the primal intensity of the former with the audacity of the latter. Instead, The Light Between Oceans is a near-anonymous gun-for-hire gig. It’s as tasteful as it is mawkish—a throwback to respectable Merchant Ivory adaptations like A Room with a View and Remains of the Day without the literary pedigree.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a lot to admire in the textures and light of the coastal locations and interwar costumes. But given Cianfrance’s past work, there’s a sense of restraint here that suggests a filmmaker on autopilot.
Still, one can detect the inventive chronology that infused Valentine and Pines—editors Jim Helton and Ron Patane, who’ve worked with Cianfrance since the beginning—and what felt gutsy there is aptly subtle and whispery here. But this is a movie about the lengths people go for passion, and passion is conspicuously absent.
With its impeccable construction, The Light Between Oceans is easy to admire. It’s a work of supreme craft and taste. But, given this director’s potential, it’s also a minor disappointment, another admirable—albeit uninteresting—misstep.
The Light Between Oceans. Directed and written by Derek Cianfrance. Starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz. Opens in Kansas City September 2, 2016.