' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: The Light Between Oceans: Bloated melodrama defies your sympathy

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Light Between Oceans: Bloated melodrama defies your sympathy

The book, the movie poster
As soon as I learned that The Light Between Oceans was about the tug-of-war over a child between a mother and one who pretends to be the real mother (as was evident in the pre-release TV commercials) I knew I would see it. I took plenty of tissues; I wanted to go alone.

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

Yet another baby snatching. Not yet.

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 


  1. Sounds sappy as hell, but I may watch it just to watch Fassbender (yummy).

    1. Exactly my thought, but I like to keep up with stories in the media about the topic of my life. Others may like it more--come back with your opinion!

  2. And I'd love to hear what others thought about it--Natural mothers, adoptees, adoptive parents, etc. One of my mother friends said she cried buckets.

  3. I have the ads for this movie on TV and cannot imagine why any first mother would want to see it. I sure don't! Why make yourself more miserable?

  4. Thanks for writing this, Lorraine. I'll save my money.

    The child being ripped from loving adoptive parents by a selfish natural parent plot line keeps being repeated -- Silas Marner, To Each His Own (a tear jerker with Olivia De Havilland), Losing Isaiah, The Deep End of the Ocean (written by an adoptive parent). In these fictional cases, the natural parent's "better nature" takes hold and he/she gives up the child.

    These plots can make good drama but have no basis in reality. Children are not automatically better off with substitute parent. Reported cases of children returned to their real parents tell of them doing fine.

    1. Except in this plot the selfish person is the person who stole the child in the first place. The natural mother in The Light Between Oceans is the morally upright person. So there is redemption in this tale. The problem is that the plot is so contrived that few will have the patience to see that.

    2. As I wrote the real mother in this story is the good person, thus making the immoral act of the taking parents all the more heinous--even if they were loving, beautiful and good caretakers. They robbed a mother and separated a child from her natural mother, with whom she of course had already bonded, even though she was an infant. She was four by the time she was returned.

      I went to see the movie because I write about these issues and want to be informed about what is in the public perception. The really false note to me is the grown child at the end saying that she wants to come back and visit, for it that assumes that she wants a continuing relationship with one of the people who stole her. I can see her wanting to meet him once, but not the rest. That I felt was a sop to the audience desire to have everything work out neatly.

      Anna Schmidt said in a later interview that she had no memory of the DeBoers. By four there might be glimpses of a few things--perhaps one woman holding you while the police had to untangle you from the child. At that point, I was ready to put chains on the Isobel.

      Justice Scalia wrote in the dissenting opinion in the Veronica Brown case:
      It has been the constant practice of the common law to respect the entitlement of those who bring a child into the world to raise that child. We do not inquire whether leaving a child with his parents is 'in the best interest of the child.' It sometimes is not; he would be better of raised by someone else. But parents have their rights, no less than children do. This father wants to raise his daughter, and the statute amply protects his right to so do. There is no reason in law or policy to dilute that protection."

  5. How old was the child when the natural mother turned up? Was she four years old, or did the prospective adoptive parents know of her existence for a while and fight her tooth and nail from taking her child?

    1. Four.

      Yes to your second question, at least the father did. He is the one who left enough clues that they were found out. His conscience bothered him. The mother would never have said anything.

  6. thanks for the review. not my cup of tea but it is good to know about it so i can avoid it and not accidentally end up going out to it.

    right now i'm opting for dark humor - Dexter - and enjoying the completely unbelievable yet darkly hilarious juxtapositions of biological brothers who have both grown to become serial killers - one who was adopted by a cop and has a foster sister who becomes a cop - and the other who never was adopted due to his older age and "special needs" - who ends up dating the foster sister cop of the younger brother. one big happy family reunion, really. hahahahaha it's a good switch for me from the more serious adoption topics and i recommend it to other adoptees if they need a break and are into dark humor.

    1. Yikes.! I've tried Dexter and know others who like it, but it wasn't my cuppa. But this insane plot you've just described would have kept me intrigued, I admit. Identical twins do end up being amazingly similar in looks and deed, and the actor who must be playing both parts is excellent. Dexter must be in reruns by now?

    2. they are not identical twins. if you count Netflix as reruns then yes, it is in reruns (haha) i don't know if it airs as a rerun anywhere on any channel. All 8 seasons are available on Netflix.

      Dexter is the younger of the two brothers, and the one who was adopted by the cop and as an adult has a cop as a sister (he also works for the cops in forensics.) the gothic or horror gore is really kind of cartoonish so although in theory it's gory, it really isnt. i've seen a lot of CSI that was more gory. Still, a lot of times during the kill scenes i look away as i just don't need thost exact visuals in my subconscious before going to bed - but they are relativity quick and the majority of the show is about his life outside of the kill scenes, keeping up appearances with the wife and kids and his sister and the other cops, and of course the ongoing story arc of Who am I? Who were my parents? and at some point he meets the brother that he forgot he had, and finds out that his brother is also a serial killer.

      the actors are talented, even with the crazy "plot". and the internal dialog/monologue is a big part of the show, and the dialog between Dexter and sis, Dexter and bro, and Dexter and the ghost of figment in his mind of his father who is deceased.

  7. "As I wrote the real mother in this story is the good person."
    Like you said, it is a story.

    1. I don't understand your meaning. It sounds as if you are saying that the mothers who lose their children usually are not?

    2. Oh anonymous we all know, adopters are all such wonderful, honest and upstanding people. (No, they all aren't).

  8. Anonymous and Stephanie...first mothers and adoptive parents Clare people first and foremost. And like people worldwode, some are exemplary, some are monsters, most are trying to muddle through life like the rest of us. My (adoptive) mom is awesome. I was lucky in that regard, because I too have heard/read the horror stories of others not as lucky. She is genuinely a good person, she would be awesome if she was my mom or not. My birth mother....she's not a monster. She's ill and refuses treatment causing chaos to all around her and even those that don't want to be around her. From what I have learned (shoved down my throat) she was like this always, before I was born and left at the hospital. Given her choices I couldn't label her as a "good" person, just misguided. Are all birth mothers like mine? Thankfully not! They, like the rest of us, run the spectrum. Try not to paint everyone with the same brush, it's misleading and hurtful.

    1. Mashka:

      Did you read where I said ALL adoptive parents were not good people? No, you did not, but most often than not get painted as altruistic saints and natural mothers get painted as less than human who don't deserve their own flesh and blood. Is this ALL the time, NO but a good deal of the time. All you have to do is read forums, comment sections and the like, all over the internet to come to this conclusion. That, and live as a natural mother. Not matter how far you have come in your life, how good of a person you are or what you do, some other family is more deserving of your child than you are. I call B.S.


  9. Agreeing with Mashka, both first mothers and adoptive mothers run the gamut from saint to monster, with most being just ordinary people trying to deal with the situations they find themselves in, muddling through. Characterizing either whole group as good or bad serves no purpose.

    This was a ridiculous movie plot, but in real life I doubt that children returned to biological parents after several years always fair well with no issues, any more than those surrendered and adopted when they are old enough to know the parents surrendering them. There are very complex emotional issues in either case; some work out well, some do not. Movies have heroes and villains, real life has mostly flawed people doing the best they can which sometimes is not good enough for the child in the middle. Life is not a movie nor a "reality" TV show.

  10. I'm an adoptee and I know I won't see this movie, based on the premise and the previews I've seen on TV. I can't see why anyone would want to see it. But I am an adoptee and the thoughts that someone would keep a child away from his/her mother who is actively looking for that child to be sickening. I literally have a physical reaction to this. Its so sad and right now, I just can't take it. As I get older, being an "adoptee" and not being able to go back and change it and live my real life makes me saddened to the point of mental instability.

  11. I sympathize Alicia. If I had the power to do so I would make it all better. I plan to steer clear of this movie too, for that reason. I have no empathy or respect for those who think this is ok. It was wrong. No moral dilemma what-so-ever! You notify authorities. End of story.

    For me it also feeds into the 'lets take this baby from their mother, we'll make her (the mother) *as if* dead. I/we want one so much it doesn't matter if or how much the real mother wants and loves the child' scenario.

    Sweet and touching movie my great aunt fanny. It's abominable. But hey, abominable makes THE MONEY. Don' it.

    Shtuff like this makes me angry.

    Oh, and for anonymous Sept. 10 @ 8:39 p.m. There are a mountain of movies and tv shows that have the natural family as plain ole dirt, if not trash, and the others as "perfect" people. Sorry if one time out of ? someone made the mother actually look like a human being.

  12. Here is the story of a son who was returned to his real parents, again a screaming adoptive mother is involved:
    Spanish pair forced to return 'adopted son' to birth mother

    The couple have turned over their son but they are vowing to continue their fight in the European Union court in Strasburg.

  13. I read the book about a month ago and was honestly afraid to see the movie. I was so afraid Isabel would somehow get her hands on Hannah's daughter again, but I saw it today. I have to say that the movie does a very good job overall of being true to the book. Because I was curious about how people would react. I looked over at goodreads and amazon to see the reviews and I found most people would agree that Isabel is entirely selfish. My favorite review was from a woman at "good reads" who renamed Tom and Isabelle "Doormat and Batshit". I loved seeing little Grace riding the horse with her Grandfather at the end and even more seeing her braid the little daisy chains with Hannah. Anyone paying attention will see that "Lucy-Grace's" real parents were both wonderful people (and they had suffered too). The ending (in 1950) was the only part where I saw the movie really straying from the book. Two important issues: First, in the book; adult Grace introduces herself to Tom as "Grace" not "Lucy-Grace" (she's umm moved on since she was four). Also in the book, Grace expresses how, growing up, she didn't fully understand her mother's anger toward himself and Isabel. Until her son was born. Then she understood absolutely. Also, at one point in the book Hannah says (and I'm paraphrasing) "Why am I always the one expected to be understanding? Why is everything about Isabel?" A good question that deserved a place in the movie!" Clare Palmatier (Boston, MA U.S.A)



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