You only have to forgive once.
I’ve been pumped for this movie since I first heard about it. I loved the novel when I read it. It’s the story of a lighthouse keeper in the 1920s and the spiraling, tragic impacts caused when he and his wife take in a lost infant. It was just brilliantly written and shot through with incredibly vivid emotions. The casting of Michael Fassbender & Alicia Vikander as the keeper and his wife was great news; they’re both right up there on my list of best living actors. Rachel Weisz in a significant supporting role? Also great. And directed by visionary director Derek Cianfrance who has produced movies of great ambition and power, even if they are often flawed. This was lining up as one of my most anticipated movies of the year. If anyone was ready to love this movie, I was. Unfortunately, it’s a real failure.
The movie’s plot hews close to the book and the performers give it their best shot, but there’s a kind of chilly, distant feeling to the film that is, I think, down to some strange decisions on Cianfrance’s part. I struggled with why the movie wasn’t landing for me both as I was watching it and also later as I thought back on it and it’s not easy to really put my finger on what gives the movie its odd lifelessness. Cianfrance has an eye for beautiful visuals and he’s able to put his three lead actors (also, one should say, incredibly beautiful) in gorgeous environments, but he doesn’t give them the breathing room to feel real in some weird ways. The actors are always watchable and Cianfrance does create a visually beautiful film. But this entire story hinges on raw emotions and moral struggles, but the characters are constrained much of the time. The movie isn’t really interested in letting scenes play; much of the time spent in this movie is spent in kind of spacy montages that are good at conjuring up an atmosphere of dreaminess, but this isn’t a story about being dreamy – it’s a story about being haunted by your decisions and unsure of how to rectify your sins. And there’s no real moral urgency to anything here. The decisions that carried such moral weight in the book are just kind of glossed over here with only a couple of troubled glances. I think, on the whole, maybe it’s just that Cianfrance treats this story with too much distance. For instance, there’s a scene toward the end of the film where one of the characters finally comes to terms with their actions and reaches a place of peace and forgiveness over them. It’s the final scene of one of the main three characters and the end of that character’s journey. Cianfrance cuts this scene down to exactly two lines of dialogue and shoots it in a single shot from down the hall and through a door where you cannot even see the face of the pivotal character in the scene. Decisions like this go beyond baffling; was Cianfrance trying to destroy this movie? I don’t think so; I think somewhere along the way he lost sight of the story and caught up in the beauty of everything. It’s odd to contrast this stifling, stilted, airless period piece with his last film, The Place Beyond the Pines, a visceral, emotionally raw, occasionally heartbreaking period piece. You can’t really blame the actors; they do their best. The script is shallower than the book, but it would have to be. But it’s the direction that mostly leeches this story of its urgency, emotion and power. Somewhere or other, Cianfrance got lost at sea. 1 ½ stars.
tl;dr – good performances can’t save this adaptation from being an airless, moribund, pale shadow of the original novel. 1 ½ stars.