The Metaphor Between Oceans: Our Review of 2016’s The Light Between Oceans (Spoilers Ahead)

Among the most pressing issues of fictional writing for novices are plot, subtext and metaphor. Director Derek Cianfrance’s 2016 feature film, The Light Between Oceans , has all three in quantity, but often not in subtlety.


A poster for director and screenwriter Derek Cianfrance’s 2016 feature film, The Light Between Oceans, starring Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender ( Photo and Caption)

Please note that this is our first experience with director Derek Cianfrance’s filmography.


Director and screenwriter, Derek Cianfrance, at the 2016 Venice Film Festival for his 2016 film, The Light Between the Oceans (Camilla Morandi/Corbis/ Photo and Caption)

That being said, and being discussed on its own merits independent of the novel, director Cianfrance’s 2016 film, The Light Between the Oceans, is very much his own thing with his directorial trademarks all over it.

Without alluding directly to either 1998’s Brother Tied, 2010’s Blue Valentine or 2012’s The Place Beyond the Pines, but thanks to the likes of The Film Stage’s Jordan Raup, We Got This Covered’s Matt Donato, Signature-Read’s Jay A. Fernandez and the Associated Press’s Jake Coyle, we can talk about the following:

  1. The greyness of humanity: Rather than decidedly good or evil characters, 2016’s The Light Between Oceans has people making decisions and taking the fall or rise for them when the time comes whilst the people around them behave in keeping with whichever societal role they occupy: policeman, parent, et cetera.
  2. The (condensed-ly depicted) passage of time: 2016’s The Light Between Oceans takes place from the end of World War I to the early- and mid-1920s and terminates in August 1950; its characters age, mourn and mark their joy in equal measure and are shown doing so.
  3. A preponderance of close-ups: whilst this is subjectively seen, the number of close-up shots of Michael Fassbender’s Tom, Alicia Vikander’s Isabel and Rachel Weisz’s Hannah has some deliberate intent in an interview with Jordan Raup of The Film Stage: ‘John Ford said, “The most interesting landscape is that of the human face,” and all of my movies. I’m always drawn into people. When I’m in a conversation with people, I’m looking at their skin, and I get close to them, I see the details. So when I’m with actors, I just want to be close. To me, it makes it more intimate to be in close-ups. I love close-ups‘.
  4. Movies about families or family-esque units: Somewhat like the couple in 2010’s Blue Valentine, the three families in 2012’s The Place Beyond the Pines and the conflicting Sherbourne/Graysmark/Roennfeldt families in 2016’s The Light Between Oceans, families play a role in director Cianfrance’s work, as per an interview with Jake Coyle of the Associated Press: ‘I make movies about family. I make movies about relationships. This one just has an epic backdrop’.
  5. Films about the reverberation of violence: running with an interview with R.Kurt Osenlund of Slant Magazine, ‘(on 2012’s The Place Beyond the Pines) I wanted the viewer to experience that effect, of seeing violence approach, and then having to stick with the reverberation of it’ which is partially echoed in Tom’s decision to ‘retire’ to Janus Island’s seclusion to escape the violence as best as he can, à la his ‘you‘re so full of life, that scares me‘ conversation with Isabel.

As always, please let us know of any Cianfrance-isms that you find in either 2016’s The Light Between Oceans in the comments. Thank you.


Director and writer, Derek Cianfrance, on the set of his 2016 feature film, The Light Between Oceans ( Photo and Caption)

The film’s plot, notwithstanding the timespans (decades, really) involved, takes a bit to present itself in the form of the shipwrecked Lucy/Grace and is just about Isabel’s struggle to retain custody of Lucy whilst Hannah tries to regain her place as Grace’s biological mother. They share the same name by the way.

What the film does carry over is a great deal of literary metaphor, especially in terms of names (Janus Island facing two oceans, Lucy/Grace having the name Ellen which signifies her as one of many lights between oceans) and the use of lighting, almost Kaminski-esque in window-set scenes, to signify innocence, with the lack thereof featuring in indict-ive scenes.


(from left to right) Star, Michael Fassbender; director and screenwriter, Derek Cianfrance; and star, Alicia Vikander at the 2016 Venice Film Festival for their 2016 feature film, The Light Between Oceans (Dominique Charriau/ Photo and Caption)

There’s a moment – set during Tom and Isabel’s picnic on the mainland – where she says, ‘you‘re still a mother or father, even if you no longer have a child‘. Not entirely given that, Tom is consistently honourable in terms of risking jail for the sake of his wife (à la as a soldier might risk worse for his generals), Isabel never gives up on Lucy even when custody is impossible to get and even leaves a letter for her (as a mother might do), whilst Hannah does everything in her (civil) power to get Lucy back, mobilising her community(as a mother might also do).


Composer Alexandre Desplat ( Photo and Caption)

The score, by composer Alexandre Desplat, is best described as Harry Potter meets Thomas Newman; given the composer’s involvement with the former, perhaps some carryover is only fair. There is equal parts joy, relief and mystery in this score which feels appropriate given the (chronological, more than geographical) journey that the film is about. It is a bit on the nose, perhaps due to the sound mix, but generally very welcome when it arrives.


Director of Photography, Adam Arkapaw, on the set of TV’s True Detective ( Photo and Caption)

The cinematography, courtesy of Director of Photography, Adam Arkapaw, is great at conveying the metaphor on screen (à la the preponderance of light), the loneliness of our cast on Janus Island (as given by the wide shots which suggest how the lighthouse looms over their lives) and the happiness or sadness that they mark. The photography is Kaminski-esque, perhaps given the subject matter, about window lighting but it generally works.

Albeit a little too simplistically, 2016’s The Light Between Oceans is a role-defined-ly humanised film whose looks aren’t detached from its core plot. Derek Cianfrance fans should find this worth a watch whilst fans of drama shan’t be disappointed either.

(Whilst the opinions and observations are the author’s own, unless stated otherwise, the following sources were used to acquire facts:,,,,,,,,

Plot and Act-by-Act Breakdown:

Plot: a secluded couple seeks to retain custody of a shipwrecked baby that washes up on their island.

Act 1: Tom decides to apply for work in the lighthouse; his application is accepted and he sets off for Janus Island.

Act 2: Tom decides to pay a visit to the lighthouse company’s head en route; Tom meets Isabel whilst there.

Act 3: Tom arrives at Janus Island; Tom later decides to set up shop and start work.

Act 4: Tom decides to return to the mainland mid-duty with the visiting sailors; Tom agrees to take Isabel on a picnic whilst there.

Act 5: Tom decides to return to Janus Island alone; Tom decides to write to Isabel and she writes back.

Act 6: Tom and Isabel decide to get married; Tom and Isabel later return to Janus Island together.

Act 7: Tom decides to head up alone to the lighthouse mid-storm; Isabel decides to go after him when her contractions begin but fails to get in.

Act 8: Tom finds Isabel outside the lighthouse door the next day; Tom and Isabel decide to bury their stillborn child.

Act 9: Tom and Isabel spot the boat coming ashore; Tom decides to run to the beach to retrieve whomever’s inside.

Act 10: Tom decides to delay reporting the boat’s appearance and their discovery of the baby and the dead body; Tom eventually decides to not record it altogether, buries the body and sets the boat out to sea.

Act 11: Tom and Isabel decide to return to the mainland, Lucy in tow; Tom spots and approaches the Roennfeldt grave in the churchyard.

Act 12: Tom decides to secretly leave a note for the widow who was grieving at Roennfeldt’s grave; Tom and Isabel decide to return to Janus Island.

Act 13: Tom decides to approach the widow, Hannah, at Janus Island’s 40th-anniversary celebrations; Tom later decides to secretly leave Lucy’s rattle at Hannah’s and return to Janus Island.

Act 14: Tom and Isabel are questioned and arrested by the police and Lucy is returned to Hannah; Tom later decides to write to Isabel.

Act 15: Lucy decides to run away from her biological mother, Hannah; Lucy is later found and returned to Hannah.

Act 16: Hannah decides to ask Isabel to testify against Tom in exchange for custody over Lucy; Isabel demurs but decides to read Tom’s letter.

Act 17: Tom agrees to go with the police for his court trial in Albany; Isabel decides to track him down and confesses all to the police.

Epilogue: Twenty years later, Tom receives a grown-up Lucy at his home; she brings her son, Christopher, to meet him.

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