Director: Derek Cianfrance (2016) BBFC cert: 12A
Wade into a sea of grief, madness and death with this mournful melodrama. Solid performances and breathtaking locations bring the best selling book by M. L. Stedman to windswept life.
Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander star as Tom and Isabel Sherbourne. He is a black clad and brooding veteran of the First World War’s western front, she is a vivacious local girl in angelic white.
The happiness of Australia’s most photogenic lighthouse keepers hits the rocks due to a repeated failure to have a child. Demented by grief, Isabel persuades Tom to abandon the ship of common sense when a baby girl is washed ashore. They pass the child off as their own, with the only clue to her identity an expensive silver rattle.
As a period romance this is more gothic tragedy than uplifting celebration of love. Imagine Emily Bronte’s Cathy and Heathcliff escaping Wuthering Heights to spend a day out at the seaside.
There are tales of suicide, ghostly images, wild walks on stormy nights, wailing widows and mourning mothers. There are letters from beyond the grave. In flashback we see the dead, living. Beneath breathy voice overs, the script shovels on unlikely occurrences and coincidences.
The lighthouse island is named after Janus, two headed god who looks to the future and the past. Tom looks one way, Isabel the other. When Isabel shaves off Tom’s moustache, she is defenestrating his stiff upper lip and removing his emotional barrier to the world. Not only does this indicate he prepared to reveal his emotions, but it places him in her power. It is redolent of Samson having his locks shorn and is the harbinger of their doom.
As the drama sinks under the weight of this heavy handed symbolism, eventually the over-wrought storytelling cops out and dissolves into sentimentality. A lack of social smoking undermines the carefully constructed period detail.
Filmed in Tasmania and off the New Zealand coast, the coastline is a character and the crashing waves are a soundtrack. Rachel Weisz offers strong support as Hannah, the daughter of local businessman. It’s always great to see Bryan Brown on screen, even when playing Septimus Potts, as unpleasant a man as his name suggests.
Fassbender and Vikander became a couple while on set and the early scenes have an earthy crackle of electricity. I hope they achieve more happiness than their characters do.