The Light Between Oceans tells the tragic (fictional) story of a young couple living on Janus Rock, an island off the coast of Western Australia who find a baby in a rowboat washed near the beach and decide to keep the baby with catastrophic repercussions.
Tom Shelbourne has returned from serving in World War I, a shell-shocked survivor. Seeking a place of refuge and quiet, he accepts a temporary six-month contract as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a remote windswept island off the coast of Western Australia. Before beginning his stint as lightkeeper Tom travels to the town of Partaguese where he has dinner with Violet and Bill Graysmark and also meets their young daughter, Isabel. Bill reveals the lightkeeper on Janus Rock is suffering from some kind of mental breakdown due to the extreme isolation. Nevertheless, Tom begins his stay on Janus Rock, tending the light and working to maintain the lighthouse and its buildings.
It turns out the sick lightkeeper for Janus Rock cannot return and Tom is offered a three year job as the lightkeeper. He and Isabel begin a quick relationship initiated by Isabel and they marry. Tom and Isabel settle into life on Janus Rock and soon she is expecting a baby. However, she miscarries one night during a terrible storm and is understandably devastated. A year later Isabel once again becomes pregnant, but although she carries the baby much longer, she miscarries that baby too. Shortly after this miscarriage, Tom spots a rowboat in the water just offshore of the lighthouse. In the boat they find a dead man and a crying, very hungry baby.
After warming and feeding the baby, Isabel is supremely happy. Tom tells her that this must go in his log and he needs to contact the mainland to let them know. Isabel begs for him to wait until morning which he reluctantly agrees to do. In the morning Isabel argues that the baby is safe and that no one need know and that this is best for the baby who will most certainly be sent to an orphanage. This baby is the answer to their prayers. Against his conscience and better judgement, Tom agrees to omit the events from the logbook and buries the dead man on Janus Rock. He sends a message to the mainland stating that Isabel has given birth ahead of schedule and that the baby is a girl. There is much celebrating and the supply boat returns with baby supplies and food.
However, things begin to go awry when Isabel and Tom take the baby, whom they have named Lucy, to the mainland for her christening. While waiting for the vicar to arrive, Tom notices a woman grieving by a tombstone. After she leaves, he walks to the tombstone where he is stunned to see that it bears the names of two people lost at sea on April 26, 1923, the day they found Lucy. Those people are a man named Frank Roennfeldt and his baby daughter, Grace Roennfeldt. Tom realizes that he now knows the Lucy's true identity but more importantly that she has a mother who is suffering deeply. Tom is troubled and preoccupied during the christening and afterwards approaches Isabel to tell her what he has learned. He insists that they now must return Lucy to her mother, but Isabel refuses. She insists that they must do what is right for Lucy who is safe with them. In an attempt to assuage his conscience and comfort Lucy/Grace's mother, Tom sends her an anonymous note telling her Grace is safe and that her husband is in the arms of God. Hannah Roennfeldt takes the note to the local police but they tell her it's not enough to go on at this point.
A few years pass and life for Tom, Isabel and Lucy continues happily on Janus Rock. Until one day during a special event recognizing the service of the lighthouse on the island, Tom witnesses Isabel and Lucy talking unknowingly with Lucy's real mother. This sets in motion a chain of events that unravels the false life Tom and Isabel have built.
The Light Between Oceans is a emotional, heartbreaking film that is slow off the mark but gradually draws viewers in. The film takes its time setting the atmosphere and the background for the events to come. After searching for months, the film crew chose the 72ft tall Cape Campbell lighthouse located Cook Strait in New Zealand's South Island as the setting for Janus Rock. Cape Campbell lighthouse allowed cinematographer Adam Arkapaw to recreate the windswept isolation that no doubt played a significant part in Isabel Shelbourne's desperate actions. Unfortunately, while the cinematography of the untamed power of sea and wind are gorgeous, the pacing of the film suffers.
Tom and Isabel Shelbourne are played by Michael Fassbender and Alicia
Vikander who are a couple in real life. The couple definitely has an on-screen rapport that makes their quick marriage believable. Tom Shelbourne's withdrawn nature and propensity to destructive self-sacrifice is well captured by Fassbender. Rachel Weiz was cast as the stoic but caring Hannah
Roennfeldt. All give solid performances.
The film is filled with many heartbreaking moments, including Isabel enduring two miscarriages, little Lucy being torn from the person she loves very much and who she believes is her mother, and the struggles of Hannah Roennfeldt to build a relationship with her long lost daughter, Grace. Equally heartbreaking is the conflict that develops between Tom and Isabel whom he loves very much. Tom's guilt over surviving the war results in his misguided attempts to protect the wife he feels he never deserved to have and to love.
Despite all of the tragedy the film ends on a hopeful tone, with a message of forgiveness. When Tom and Isabel face years of imprisonment for their actions, it is Hannah who redeems them. Remembering her beloved husband Frank who decided to forgive those who harboured antagonism towards him because of his German nationality, Hannah forgives Tom and Isabel, by speaking for them. She recognizes that they did save Grace and she remembers what Frank once told her, "You only have to forgive once. To resent you have to do it all day, every day." And maybe in the end, that's the most important message of this film.