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Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans,” starring Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, is an old-fashioned love story based on the 2012 M.L. Stedman bestseller of the same name.

Set immediately after the devastation of World War I on the edge of Western Australia on a remote island, this emotional drama is about a lighthouse keeper and his young wife, Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, who find an infant girl in a boat washed onshore after a violent storm. (Also in the boat is the body of a dead man.)

MOVIE REVIEW: The Light Between Oceans

Isabel is in a deep depression after suffering two miscarriages, and the baby seems to arrive as though out of a fairytale to alleviate her suffering. Isabel talks Tom into letting her take care of the baby, at least for a little while. What Isabel doesn’t count on is the baby’s grieving mother, played by Rachel Weisz, in a heartbreaking performance.

What the Sherbournes do when they find the baby and the decisions they make will have consequences for the rest of their lives. The movie also makes audiences ask themselves, “What would you do?”

light between oceans, michael fassbender, alicia vikander, derek cianfrance
Derek Cianfrance and Michael Fassbender | Paula Schwartz Photo

Far from the moody and intimate film noir of Cianfrance’s previous films, “The Place Beyond the Pines” and “Blue Valentine,” “The Light Between Oceans” has a wider sweep, especially visually. With its gorgeous landscapes and wide-screen shots, “The Light Between Oceans,” beautifully filmed by Adam Arkapaw, reminds me of David Lean’s movies, especially “Ryan’s Daughter.” Like Lean’s movies, this is a movie you want to see in a theater. And don’t forget the Kleenex.

“The Light Between Oceans” is now also famous for being the movie where Fassbender and Vikander met and fell in love. They’ve been dating since, and their meetings tailed relentlessly by the tabloids. Last month, on one of those rare occasions when the superstars were in Manhattan together, they joined the director at a press conference at the Ritz in the Battery to promote the film, which they did enthusiastically and without, regretfully, any touch-feely public displays of affection.

light between oceans, michael fassbender, alicia vikander, derek cianfrance
Derek Cianfrance, Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander | Paula Schwartz Photo

Below are selected highlights from the press conference:

For Michael and Alicia, talk about the complicated, complex characters you’re playing, and the challenges of these roles. And as in “Casablanca,” was the movie the start of a beautiful friendship? Will you two make another movie together?

Alicia: I loved working with Michael. I was a huge fan of his. I think he’s one of the most diverse and brave actors. I remember when I saw him in “Hunger” and “Fish Tank” in one of my favorite cinemas in Sweden many years ago… I would love to work with him again. I think we all had a very wonderful time making this film, and given the chance to play Isabel was a gift from Derek. He told me she’s a fighter, and she is. She’s a survivor, too, and she’s a girl with her heart on her sleeve. I love that she was so transparent and to play someone, even I felt like I couldn’t really know where she was heading each day because she does things and says things without thinking, which is quite liberating sometimes to have that in the role…

The Sherbournes are good people. Good people sometimes don’t make the most right or the most moral decisions or choices, but she acts from the heart always, and that’s why I think you couldn’t really blame her. (Portraying) a woman that good, you had to get to the heart of her to understand her and her actions.

Michael: I said to Derek early on, I was like, “This girl frightens me.” She’s so fierce and brave as a performer. It sort of kind of bowled me over. It was great. It really made me feel like I had to come to work in the morning… And then we had fun, as well. In between takes we would have a laugh, which I always think all of us sort of spent so much time working, might as well have fun while you’re doing it, and that should be important. And then under Derek’s tutelage, we came to work and we really sort of dug around in the weeds every day trying to find a flower where we could.

Derek: He had to milk a goat. We have the shot.

Michael: I had to milk a goat, which I did successfully in one take. There was a comedy element of me trying to rope the goat up, which I got very frustrated, which added to the comedy, of course. It looked a little odd, I suppose, me sort of trying to take a goat from behind. (Alicia laughed) Derek kept them, I guess, to blackmail me down the line.

Like Alicia said, it was an absolute honor to get the opportunity to play Tom Sherbourne. When I read the script, and I read the script before I read the book, I was just so moved by the story first and foremost. These are decent, ordinary people, who make some decisions that are very damaging and costly, and it really touched me emotionally and really got to me. As a character, I really find Tom to be a hero. He’s somebody that I would aspire to be like. He’s a man of his word. He is somebody that carries his responsibility very seriously, so when we first meet him, he decides to go to an island to get away from people.

Part of the idea of that for me was that he’d seen so much death and destruction in World War One. He’d had his own portion to blame for that. He decided that he didn’t want to hurt anybody or bring harm to anybody in his life, whatever remained of his life, so therefore, decided to go into isolation.

Derek, why was it important for you to show these characters on screen?

The thing that attracted me to this story in the first place was that I’d been making movies about families, and when I was a little kid I always remember thinking that people lived on islands, because I always thought it was strange when people came over, our behavior changed inside the house. And then when they left, we went back to being real again. And I remember being at friends’ houses, and I’d be in my friend’s basement playing pinball, and I’d hear their alcoholic parents beating each other up upstairs. I used to think that, ‘Wow! Everyone lives on an island.’ Everyone has these family secrets.

So, as a kid, I always wanted to try and take photographs and record the things that were really happening. I couldn’t understand why we always had smiling family pictures on my wall. I thought that was only side of our life. So I just made it my mission to show what happens on these islands, and then I found this book that takes place on a literal island. And I was like ‘Oh, my god! This is what I was born to do.’

light between oceans, michael fassbender, alicia vikander, derek cianfrance
Derek Cianfrance, director of The Light Between Oceans | Paula Schwartz Photo

For Derek, what was the process like to decide what to omit from the novel, especially with so many emotionally devastating scenes?

I remember on day two, I think it was, we were doing a scene with Michael and he was hammering some metal in his shop and he’s just praying for himself and he cried, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Yes! He cried! Right!’ But then let’s flash forward. We shot in 45 days. Forty-five days later we were doing a scene and Michael and I got together before and said, ‘Whatever we do, let’s not cry here.’ Because the whole movie was so emotionally charged, and everyone was crying on set the whole time. We were trying our hardest not to cry anymore, and in that scene we were like, ‘Yeah, whatever you do, just don’t cry, Michael.’ But he couldn’t help it, he was crying anyway. The whole movie was waterworks.

Derek, talk about shooting on location and why you decided it was important to live, as well as shoot, in this isolated area?

What I ask my actors to do, I ask them to fail and I ask them to surprise me, right? Then what I give them in return is I try to give them experiences, and one of the experiences was to live in this isolation. Any time you make a movie, in its best form, you have this kind of camp. If you ever went to summer camp, where you get to know each other incredibly well, and it’s incredibly intimate and private and you have all these great times … Only we have a camera and a sound crew there and we’re making a movie, but what I like to do is try to get rid of all that.

I just thought it would be a gift to these guys to be able to get rid of distractions of the real world and actually live there and be able to wake up at 4 in the morning and shoot the sunrise and shoot them experiencing the sunrise. It does something to you psychologically to be sleeping in your trailer at night and have these windstorms come in and make you think they’re going to blow you into the ocean. It kind of unnerves you in a way, and I feel like Tom and Isabel had to live that way, so to me it was the gift.

I’m always looking for a place where I can make this collision between fiction and non-fiction, between the story and real life, between acting and behavior. And so by living in that place, it allowed us to do that. And thankfully, Michael and Alicia were game.

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