The sweeping love story of The Light Between Oceans, which opens on September 2 and stars Ireland's Michael Fassbender, takes place on a storm tossed island off of the coast of Australia. There, after almost four years of fighting on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) takes up a lonely job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a hilly outcrop that's half a day’s journey from the mainland.
To this isolated spot, where a supply boat arrives just once every three months, Tom then brings his spirited young wife Isabel (played by Fassbender's real life partner Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, 27) and in scene after scene the pair exhibit the molten romantic chemistry that brought them together off-screen too.
Let me just cut to the chase and say right here buy your tickets now. The two lead performances are Oscar worthy, as is the atmospheric and utterly gorgeous cinematography, which captures the raw natural beauty of Australia's west coast in scene after jaw-dropping scene.
If she's nominated again it could be Vikander's Oscar second win and Fassbender's first (after two previous nominations, 2017 is already shaping up to be his year).
There are many kinds of storms that rage in this mature and brilliantly paced meditation on marital and parental love, but The Light Between Oceans also does something increasingly rare in a big studio film: It takes its time, allowing its themes to emerge at the ideal pace.
After two miscarriages and one stillbirth, Tom's grieving wife Isabel sees an opportunity present itself when a boat washes up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby. What if we keep the child, a girl, and bury the man she asks her husband? No one has seen and no one need know. They could raise the child as their own. All they would have to do is keep their mouths shut.
Fassbender's character is a principled and kind man, and we can see from the outset that his nature rebels at his wife's unscrupulous suggestions. Unlike Isabel he considers the potential consequences, legal and emotional, and decides they outweigh the good that may come.
But Vikander is sensational as the heart-shot mother desperate to raise a child of her own and Fassbender is equally good as her conscience stricken husband, eager to give his wife everything she dreams of yet fearful of what's unforeseen.
You rarely see the kind of chemistry that is apparent in every scene between these two gifted actors, who have found a vehicle for their talents that their own presence improves on.
At the start of the film Tom has returned from the war a broken man, eager for solitude. But to his surprise Isabel gently coaxes him back toward life, transforming him in a way he no longer felt was possible.
What follows is all the more shocking because we learn the although the two main characters are thoroughly good people, they are good people who make a bad and life altering choice.
In other hands this subject matter could easily veer into stagey melodrama, but Fassbender and Vikander are just too convincing in their roles. In particular Fassbender gives a perfectly judged slow-burn performance as a man who, after almost four years in the hell of battle, cannot permit himself to cause needless suffering to another human being.
Vikander is luminous as a mother who will fight to keep her family together whatever the cost (and the cost is unforgettably steep). You will be swept up as the events take their course and you will root for both of these characters, who have opposing viewpoints, until the final credits.
With its atmospheric setting, superb sound and costume design, its uniformly excellent ensemble cast and its visionary directing, The Light Between Oceans unspools like a classic Hollywood drama because that's exactly what it is destined to be.
This is arguably Fassbender’s most persuasive and affecting performance to date, rendered all the more surprising for being so unexpected. Critics expecting a romantic pot boiler will be disarmed by the skill of the performances and director Derek Cianfrance's undeniably flawless direction.
Go for the prospect of an acting master class from two leads at the top of their game, but stay for an uncommonly affecting meditation on the fate of love. The Light Between Oceans will sweep you up and leave you contemplating its hard questions for a long time after you leave the theater.