|The book, the movie poster|
Since I found the story of The Place Beyond the Pines, one of the director Derek Cianfrance's earlier films, devastating and compelling from the first frame, I expected the same. After that story of a child the father did not know his short-term girlfriend had, and its the tragic end, I was an emotional mess. I know too many stories about guys who don't know they left behind a child.
So I was set up to like this movie. I excepted my own personal waterworks.
Yet I didn't even need the tissues. The story is way too preposterous, the filming veers to high melodrama, the moral question at the heart of the story
left me--a mother who lost her child to adoption--simply irritated with the naked selfishness and arrogance of a woman who takes a child to keep when she knows she shouldn't. The story is designed to make you sympathetic towards her, to feel her pain, but the plot is too absurd to be believable, yet this is not set up as an apocryphal fable.
Nearly the whole first hour sets up the characters as so damn deserving. Steel-jawed and silent, Tom Shelbourne returns from WWI to his native New Zealand. Without flashbacks and with few words, he conveys the horror of that god-awful war. Michael Fassbender is that good as a brooding, moral archetype; you don't need more than his vacant stares to know that he is emotionally drained after all he went through. At one point the camera lingers on his stare so long I thought the film might be stuck on this frame. Tom takes a job as a solitary light keeper on an island a hundred miles from the rest of civilization. Before he goes off, he meets the utterly charming daughter of townspeople, Isabel, (Alicia Vikander), who captures his heart with a single smile, and they begin a sweet correspondence via occasional letters, and in short order, they marry and are deposited on the island as man and wife.
Utterly happy and devoted to one another, they only need children to fulfill their obvious destiny. By now we have gone about a slow, tedious 45 minutes, dreary even with the love story. Obligatory shots of crashing waves, clouds and sun, sun and clouds, the sunny island, are set against a background of overly dramatic music that keeps reminding you that all is not what it seems. I was bored enough that I kept focusing on the fact the Tom on the way to the lighthouse from their home--remember the couple is there alone--wears a knotted tie as if he were going to work in an office. Like, really? Even if this is the 1920s.
Isabel has a miscarriage, all set against a dark, stormy night, a mad dash to the lighthouse where even her banging can't rouse Tom from the upper room where the light burns, and yes, that over-arching music. He stoically nails a wooden cross over the grave. Pretty soon Isabel has miscarriage Two. You do feel some sympathy for them, but the plot is so obviously designed to make one feel that what is coming up is a difficult moral question, when there is actually none at all. You don't keep another woman's baby just because a baby rolls in at the appropriate moment, and her Mom is alive and well but momentarily not on the scene.
Which is exactly what happens. Soon after the second miscarriage, a rowboat comes ashore, carrying a dead man and a live baby girl. How were they lost at sea? There is no passing larger boat, they are too far from anywhere for this to be anything but a phony plot device to deposit the baby on the island by boat rather than stork. Tom insists they must do the right thing, and report the incident immediately. An overwrought Isabel wants to keep the baby as their own--no one will know, she forcefully argues, they will just say their baby came early. Tom tries to convince Isabel that this is wrong. However briefly this is played, Fassbender and the director convey the deep moral covenant Tom is breaking: thought shalt not take another's child. He argues that if no one is found to claim the child, they can apply to adopt her.
Isabel however does not want to take that chance. She has no moral qualms about taking the child as her own--God has answered their prayers; God has sent them a baby, a child they will love as their own. Tom reluctantly agrees.
Soon enough the child's real mother, Hannah, is revealed, beautifully transported as a woman of sorrow by the incomparable Rachel Weisz who can convey a field of emotion with a single simple glance. In the end, the child is returned to her real mother (they do use that word, watch for it) but the girl is four by then. You see the conflict in the child because this strange woman is not mama. When the girl is literally pried from Isabel's arms, I couldn't help be reminded of the DeBoer cases in Michigan in the 90s, when an adoptive mother and father, Robby and Jan DeBoer, dragged on a case for years in the courts for two-and-a-half years before the girl--Anna Schmidt--was returned to her real parents. Anna Schmidt, of course, was known as Baby Jessica (DeBoer) in the media. The TV cameras covered the highly charged scene with the grieving Robby DeBoer as the screaming child was carried to the car that took her away. Were the cameras necessary? Only to wring the last bit of sympathy for the DeBoers. Charlie Gibson on GMA was so solidly in their camp I could never look at him again without being angered.
Sympathy for mothers who insist that they have a god-given right to another's child is absent in me. When I once confronted an adoptive mother of two who was going on and on about how her children (whose parents she always knew and did not prevent her children from knowing them) had such better lives with her that maybe their "better lives" had to be measured against the sense of abandonment they felt--one of the children had already been jailed for drug infractions, which was prevalent in his biological family--I could feel her recoil through the telephone connection.
When I said that her desire to have a child did not entitle her to have another woman's, she responded with several sentences about her deep, organic need that she had to be a mother; this was way beyond simple desire. It was....organic. No more questions need be asked, or explained. She did not bring her self to say she had a right to a child, but that was the clear implication. Her need trumped anything else...because, of course, there are so many children who need saving. She reminded me of Elizabeth Bartholet, the Harvard professor who seems to have never met an adoption she didn't love, and with whom I once argued on TV as she insisted that any research that showed that adoptees had any problems at all was "garbage."
The Light Between Oceans has all the trappings of the Solomon question as Solomon threatens to split a baby in two. Hannah, the real mother, aware of her child's distress suggests to Isabel that she should visit the girl, or they might share time with the child during this difficult transition. But Isabel can't handle that. There are a couple of unnecessary melodramatic plot twists that had me wondering, what next? The child disappears and there is a dramatically lit night search for her on the rocks by the ocean; Tom is going to be tried for the murder of the dead man until Isabel at the very last second--he's already on a boat to be being taken away--races to the dock fesses up and tells the truth: that it was all her idea to keep the child, that the man was dead when the boat washed up. By then, the plot is a baggy hot air balloon, more make-believe than anything we might accept as real life.
Apparently the plot runs true to the novel by M. L. Stedman, an Australian woman, which may work in print but on the screen just floundered with too many plot points. Director Cianfrance shot 200 hours of film, and apparently he was determined to not lose a scene. When the child goes missing, you know that she will be found; this is not a movie that ends with death. What was thrilling was that Hannah, the natural mother, comes off as a much better woman of high character than the grasping Isabel. Though Tom went along with Isabel, he is the story's moral center. It is his actions, after all, that lead to the return of the child to her real mother, and he and Isabel being discovered and punished for their misdeed.
To those who might find sympathy for Isabel, consider this: Say that a woman has two children born with Down's syndrome or you--name-it incurable condition that will lead to their early death. She then has a third child with the same condition, yet it is not obvious physically. A woman in the same room with her gives birth to a perfect child, same sex. The babies are nearly identical. The mother of the children with the malady has the opportunity to switch children before they leave the hospital, and so she does it. Because she can. The mother of the perfect child does not recognize the switch. Does the other woman have the right to do that? Does she have the right to have a perfect child because fate has already given hew two with defects? Obviously not. Because she gives birth to defective children she does not have a right to another woman's child.
To play up the moral question, the island where to lighthouse is located is named Janus, the god of two faces, one looking backward, the other face looking forward. The title must refer to the "light" or question or perfect blonde child (and she is!) between the two oceans, or mothers.
The last scene of The Light Between Oceans has the grown up daughter coming back some 20 years later with her new baby to see Tom. Conveniently, Isabel has died of some unknown disease. Tom is alone; they never did have a child. The coming back scene did feel real, as well as the lack of bitterness towards him. She then asks if she can come back again, which unfortunately comes off as an unreal sop to those who sympathize with the baby-snatchers. During the filming the two stars, Fassbender and Vikander, fell in love. Alas, that was not enough to save the film. It needed a lifeboat of its own.-- Your unusually dry-eyed critic, lorraine
May the Richest Parents Win--The DeBoer Case
TO ORDER click on links
The Light Between Oceans: A Novel by M.L. Stedman
Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA
by Richard Hill