The Light Between Oceans is set on Janus, a small island far off the coast of Western Australia. The Roman god it is named after has two faces and is often thought to be looking to both the past and future (hence the year starts in January, also named after Janus.) Janus Island we discover in the story is placed between two oceans, but it is also a place that lies between hope and despair, joy and sorrow, injury and pardon, and love and . . . love?
Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a veteran of the Great War, signs on as the lighthouse keeper on Janus. He is looking to get away from everything after the war. He will be about one hundred miles from another living person. And he likes the idea. But just before he goes, he meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), a lovely young woman who is grieving the loss of two brothers in the war. After a bit of a long-distance romance, they marry and head to their own little Eden on Janus. Their happiness seems complete—until two miscarriages brings darkness into their lives.
Two days after the second miscarriage, a rowboat drifts toward Janus. Inside Tom and Isabel discover an infant and a dead man. At Isabel’s insistence, they do not notify anyone and begin to raise the child as their own. And so now they are a family of three—Tom, Isabel, and Lucy. But when they take Lucy into port to be baptized, Tom notices a grieving woman, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), in the church graveyard. He sees that she has been at a memorial to a man and child lost at sea the day before they found Lucy. His guilt at her deep grief sets the story for the various dilemmas that Tom and Isabel will face—emotional, moral, and eventually legal. It also means that everyone will have to face sorrow in unexpected ways. There are no possibilities for everything to work out nicely. In fact we may wonder if there will be any happiness for anyone.
This is a story that deals with consequences. Each action creates consequences not just for the person involved but for others as well. Even when characters try to do what seems the right thing, there are severe, unforeseen costs involved. In such a situation, how can we hope to make choices that will lead to what is right? And we often have to balance what is right for whom, because what helps one person injures another.
The film also touches briefly on forgiveness. In a flashback we meet Hannah’s husband, a German who must live with the resentment of most of the community because of the past war. Yet he lives a life that does not repay those who treat him badly. He notes that you only have to forgive once, but resentments have to be brought up over and over and that is just too much work. This comes up again in the film, but could have been explored a bit more fully than it is.
I think we often find ourselves on Janus Island—that place that looks in two directions (or even multiple directions) at once. We are always on the cusp not just of past and future, but of the many possibilities of where our lives can lead. The choices we make may open some doors and close others. How we live in the aftermath of our choices often determines whether we will find happiness or not.
Photos courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures
Editor’s note: Special features include “Bringing the Light to Life,” a look at how Cape Campbell, New Zealand, became the background for the film via the cast and crew as Cianfrance’s work made the film what it is; and see the history of the lighthouse at Cape Campbell played out.