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Movie Review: 'The Light Between Oceans'

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

"The Light Between Oceans" opens on this holiday weekend. It's a movie adapted from the best-selling novel by M.L. Stedman. Big star cast - Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz and director Derek Cianfrance. We're going to talk about this with Justin Chang, who is movie critic at the Los Angeles Times. Welcome to the program.

JUSTIN CHANG: Thank you.

INSKEEP: What's it about?

CHANG: It's about a couple who look after a lighthouse on a small island in Australia. They're unable to have children. And fatefully, a baby in a boat washes ashore. And they pass the child off as their own. And so it's about the moral dilemma that arises as a result of their fateful decision.

INSKEEP: Wow. That is a powerful potential material there.

CHANG: It is. It's rooted, you know, in kind of classic melodrama. Much of it will definitely trigger the waterworks a little bit. The performances by Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz are wonderful. And the filmmaking is really beautiful.

You know, you have these gorgeous, golden-pink sunset hues in which the island is shot. It's a really gorgeous-looking movie - almost too gorgeous - almost verging on precious at times, I think.

INSKEEP: Well, let's give a listen, at least, to some of this. Here's a clip from "The Light Between Oceans." And it's part of the scene where the couple finds this child that washes ashore.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS")

ALICIA VIKANDER: (As Isabel) Conscious - a coincidence that she showed up.

MICHAEL FASSBENDER: (As Tom) She's a lovely baby. But you can't keep her.

VIKANDER: (As Isabel) She needs us. We're not doing anything wrong.

INSKEEP: OK. I can hear the melodrama there but also a bit of creepiness. Does this go in that kind of creepy direction, as well?

CHANG: It has some interesting twists that develop. And, you know, this is a very absorbing movie. It does become quite manipulative, I think. And, you know, manipulation is, of course, kind of inherent to movies. It's inherent to melodrama, in particular.

So it's not that I object to the manipulation. It's just that you can kind of see the gears turning a little bit too much. So this movie - I really wanted to kind of be swept away by it. But I think it still holds you at arm length.

INSKEEP: I can imagine a lot of people watching this who would relate to it personally on some level if they wanted a child or lost a child or adopted a child. Does it seem to comment on daily life - ordinary life - in any way?

CHANG: Absolutely. I should mention, too, this movie is actually set in early 1920s. It's in the shadow of World War I. So there's kind of a theme of post-war trauma and post-war guilt, as well. It certainly touches those chords you mention.

And, you know, I think the most powerful thing about the movie is the idea that it generates about empathy and, you know, putting yourself in other people's shoes and sacrificing. You know, this is a movie that kind of calls on all the characters to make incredible sacrifices.

You know, they all want to be parents. And they all love this child, you know, in the end. But their circumstances conspire to make them make very hard decisions regarding the stewardship of that child.

INSKEEP: For all of the manipulation, as you put it, is this the movie you'd most want us to see this weekend if we get out to a movie?

CHANG: I do moderately recommend the film.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

CHANG: Yes, I think it's worth seeing. It's gorgeous. I think, you know, it's - I - and, you know, maybe even stronger than that because sometimes, I even recommend bad movies people see because I think it can be instructive. (Laughter) So - and it's not a bad movie. I just think that it's kind of - at times, kind of an overly worked movie, I would say. But it has its heart in the right place.

INSKEEP: Justin Chang, thanks for joining us.

CHANG: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's movie critic for the Los Angeles Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.