George Eliot’s novella Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe, first published in 1861, tells of a man with a checkered past, run out of his hometown after being betrayed by his best friend and falsely accused of thievery. Marner settles in a new village where he sets up a successful lacemaking trade and for twenty years lives alone, isolated and rich. One day, the degenerate son of the local Lord slips into Marner’s cottage, steals his gold, and disappears. Coincidentally, a small girl with golden curls is abandoned on Marner’s doorstep, and the similarity between the money and the girl’s hair is obvious enough that even the narrator finds it a bit twee. Through the course of the novella, Marner the wealthy recluse becomes Marner the dutiful father who loses his prized possessions but gains family and community. We, the readers, are morally enriched.
For Eliot and her Victorian readership, the coincidences, moralizing, and blatant sentimentalism were not flaws but rather genre expectations. To read literature of this sort was to gain an emotional experience plus ethical enrichment. These qualities in Silas Marner, as I can attest from many years teaching this book, are much less congenial to twenty-first century readers. That these elements of Victorian fiction are reproduced without irony in Derek Cianfrance’s latest film, The Light Between Oceans, is perhaps its boldest move—and likely the reason it has received such mixed reviews. Like his two previous features—Blue Valentine (2010) and The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)—Cianfrance’s new film strives to be a tearjerker with grand themes about family, forgiveness, and redemption. Fresh for his latest outing is a period setting in the first half of the twentieth century and an Australian locale.
With his three recent features, Cianfrance has shown himself to be deeply interested in filmmaking driven by storytelling. To fully summarize any of these works would be to damage the experience somewhat for the uninitiated viewer, since part of the viewing pleasure arises from wondering whether anything good might evolve from the characters’ circumstances or whether the narrative will plunge headlong into unrelenting tragedy. Few directors working today seem as committed as Cianfrance to unfurling storylines that cross decades and generations. This narrative style can be enchanting and surprising, but it also has made his films difficult to market to audiences accustomed to being sold quickly encapsulated premises and scenarios. The famous, and much parodied, movie trailer tagline, “In a world, where…,” that accommodates innumerable action/sci-fi/rom-com stories is evidence of this quick-sell based on setting and scenario.
Reduced to its premise, The Light Between Oceans begins in a world where a generation of traumatized ex-soldiers are returning from France after the Great War. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a former officer suffering from PTSD, takes a position as a lighthouse keeper on an island off the Australian coast. The enforced solitude suits his postwar state of mind, but he strikes up an epistolary romance with a vibrant young woman called Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), who draws him out of his emotional numbness and into passionate marriage. All is well for a time, and the early lighthouse days are full of meaningful looks between the photogenic leads and sun-drenched kisses haloed in lens flares. But a series of miscarriages sends Isabel into a traumatic state of her own, as her lost children join the dead combatants who haunt Tom and launch her into a hyper-state of self-protection. The first in a series of wild coincidences occurs when a dinghy washes ashore carrying a dead man and a crying baby—one of the film’s clearest echoes of George Eliot. Instead of Silas Marner’s selfless turn toward fatherhood, the Sherbournes become ethical wrecks. Tom immediately feels compelled by duty to alert proper authorities, but Isabel insists that they keep the baby, bury the man’s body, and remove the grave marker for their second child to pass off the foundling as their own. Tom’s love for Isabel overcomes his conscience, and the relatively staid first half of the film shifts gears drastically with an influx of new characters, moral dilemmas, and even a tense subplot involving a police procedural and a courtroom drama.
This plot structure feels like an avalanche gathering momentum, and many critics have ridiculed the contrivances and implausibilities that enable the storyline. These narrative twists do indeed strain credulity when measured against twenty-first century expectations about “realism,” but The Light Between Oceans may be better understood as a throwback to Victorian storytelling, where, for instance, the chance meeting of vital characters separated by miles and years does not undermine the narrative pleasures and moralistic themes in a Dickens novel. That Tom and Isabel become closely entangled with Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz) for the last half of the film requires some suspension of disbelief but is a crucial part of the ethical quagmire Cianfrance creates. With every twist in the plot, heartbreaking tragedy threatens to devour, and with each contrived escape Cianfrance ratchets up the pathos. Marketing for the film has alluded to this late development, but mostly The Light Between Oceans has been billed for its high romanticism, augmented by the fact that Fassbender and Vikander became a real-life couple during the shoot. Though possibly unsatisfying as a romantic star vehicle, The Light Between Oceans may very well have a second life in college ethics courses or church small groups where discussion of the characters’ choices seems ready-made by the blatant themes of loss, grace, sacrifice, and atonement.
Cianfrance’s previous film The Place Beyond the Pines was also notable for its surprisingly expansive plotting, including a narrative twist so shocking that critics vowed secrecy and many audiences felt betrayed. Beneath its profanity-laden script and gritty characters, such as a facially tattooed Ryan Gosling, The Place Beyond the Pines was also a Victorian-style morality tale, covering multiple generations to explore the “sins of the fathers” motif. Rachel Weisz in The Light Between Oceans functions much like Bradley Cooper in The Place Beyond the Pines, a big name in the credits who only becomes important late in the film. Likewise, Cianfrance’s first major feature, Blue Valentine, though far more sexually graphic and emotionally cruel than The Light Between Oceans, is at heart a moralizing story about the challenges of marriage. Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines feature Ryan Gosling at his most doe-eyed and self-lacerating, and Michael Fassbender steps into this same type but with slightly more ethical backbone.
At the risk of giving too much away, it is worth noting that for all of his dwelling in dark human tragedies, Cianfrance remains a strikingly optimistic filmmaker. Some of his optimism, evident in the ways that certain characters manage to snatch victory from defeat, compounds the sense of “unrealism” and Victorian quaintness. Cianfrance’s sprawling approach to chronology is a major factor in this blend of buoyancy and wretchedness. The island setting of The Light Between Oceans is heavy-handedly called “Janus,” and Tom observes to Isabel that Janus is the god for whom we named “January, which looks forward to the new year and backward to the old.” In addition, the lighthouse shines out between two oceans, emphasizing the split vision of all the characters. This dual focus on past and future guides much of the film’s narrative. Cianfrance has a penchant for springing forward through several decades of a character’s life and revealing the effects of one set of choices upon a later generation. This generous timespan allows him to demonstrate the power of parental sin and its turmoil for the young, but it also opens unexpected moments of relief after lifetimes of suffering. The surprising coda to The Light Between Oceans gives a glimpse of characters in old age and children grown up, and through time’s passage we witness the absolution of the parents’ sins.
Silas Marner concludes with Marner’s adopted daughter grown and married exclaiming, “O father…I think nobody could be happier than we are.” For George Eliot, the measure of success in her fiction came not from supposed literary virtues like consistency, plausibility, and subtlety, but from bettering her audience through moral teaching, sage wisdom, and ethical modelling. Her happy conclusion emphasizes the just rewards of righteous actions. That Cianfrance has attempted something similar in his story of complicated parenting, sins redeemed, and audience enrichment—even despite imperfect results—is a testament to artistic bravery.
Charles Andrews is an associate professor of English at Whitworth University.