The Light Between Oceans review

When Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) returns home at the end of the first world war, he's not ready to fully rejoin society, and so he takes a temporary job as lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a small island off the southern coast of Western Australia. During his induction on the mainland he meets the beautiful Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), and there is a real and immediate chemistry between the two. They swap love letters and see each other whenever Tom visits the mainland, and within the year they are wed.

The couple settle in to a quiet, blissful love on the island, very much in love and keen to start a family. Sadly, Isabel suffers two miscarriages and they fear their future will be childless, until one day a small rowboat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a live a baby girl. Tom and Isabel face a moral dilema: do they report their find to the authorities, or keep quiet and raise the child as their own daughter?

Based on the best-selling novel by Perth-born author ML Stedman, The Light Between Oceans is a beautifully made, old-fashioned story with powerful themes of love, loss, death, sacrifice, guilt, redemption and forgiveness. It's a film about people who do the wrong thing for the right resons, and how they pay the ultimate price for their actions. Screenwriter-director Derek Cianfrance has produced a genuinely powerful tearjerker with great sensitivity to Tom and Isabel's plight. It's an intimate and emotional drama, and Fassbender and Vikander are perfect in the lead roles, sharing a strong chemistry and both bringing their A-game to the performances. Special mention must go to way Vikander speaks – not only is her Australian accent spot-on, she even manages to sound properly West Australian.

The supporting cast is also strong, with the standout being Rachel Weisz as Hannah Roennfeldt, the baby girl's biological mother. And it's a joy to see three legends of the Aussie acting world: Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson and Garry McDonald. All involved give the film their utmost and work hard to ensure it doesn't descend into soap opera or mawkishness, and their efforts really do pay off.

Although the fictional island of Janus Rock (named after the ancient Roman god that has two faces, one looking to the future and one to the past) is off the coast of Western Australia, the film was shot in New Zealand (Cape Campbell and Dunedin) and Tasmania – and it shows. Anyone who knows that south-west corner of Australia will know that the locations used in the film look nothing like the real thing – for a start, the light is all wrong. But that's a minor quibble, and it doesn't really detract from the story at all. The Light Between Oceans is deeply moving, morally complex and brimming with wonderful performances. As such, it's an easy film to recommend  – just be sure to take a pack of tissues with you.

Listen to The Light Between Oceans London press conference

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Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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