With his third film, The Light Between Oceans, Derek Cianfrance joins the ranks of Fernando Meirelles and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, directors who burst onto the scene with amazing, out-of-nowhere debuts, only to lose their mojo when asked to make another movie. In the case of Meirelles, there is doubt over how much auteurship he had on City of God. As for von Donnersmarck, he still has a chance to redeem himself after The Tourist. He could go back to Germany and make something that rivals The Lives of Others. Cianfrance, on the other hand, appears to be in a different situation.

Cianfrance, who began his career making short documentaries on Run-D.M.C. and Sean Combs, seemed to come out of nowhere with Blue Valentine (2010), a searing look at a marriage in implosion. Featuring indelible performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine could have been a career-making moment for a starting new talent. When his second film, The Place Beyond the Pines, debuted in 2013, I wrote that it wasn’t “as bold or important” as it appears to be. The Light Between Oceans, based on the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, is an overwrought, self-important slog, one that makes complete sense when taking the long view on Cianfrance’s short career.

The film begins shortly after the end of World War I. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), has returned to Australia after witnessing horror and death in Europe. To escape his demons, he takes a job manning a lighthouse on a remote island. When ashore for furlough, he meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) and they marry. Life on the island is good for the couple until Isabel suffers a pair of miscarriages. Distraught and heartbroken, all the light appears to have drained for Tom and Isabel. Then, fate washes ashore a tiny boat and within it a dead man and crying infant. Isabel convinces Tom to keep the baby as their own, against his misgivings, setting off a string of heartbreaking events.

Despite its beautiful vistas and sweeping seascapes, The Light Between Oceans is essentially a two-hankie made-for-television script gussied up with Hollywood lucre. Fate has a funny of way of making things happen in this world and the film’s underlying message (you only have to forgive once, it takes energy to resent someone every day of your life) is something that even Steven Spielberg wouldn’t touch in his most cloying moments. Fassbender and Vikander play their roles with somber import, lifeless performances that are beneath what either actor is capable of doing.

There are a lot of meaningful looks and windswept lovers in The Light Between Oceans. Cianfrance plays with how small decisions affect the lives of his characters in all three of his films. In Blue Valentine, a sexual encounter from the past destroys a marriage. It is believable and utterly heartbreaking. You don’t need a magical baby in a boat to convey that sort of message. For fans of films such as The Notebook, The Light Between Oceans has plenty to offer. It’s just a shame that Cianfrance, who showed so much promise at first, decided this would be the path his career should follow.

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