In the summer of 2011, I had a brief gig with a gigantic movie database, tagging films with certain key words. Under the ‘Plot’ category was my favorite tag: “Hide the Body!” It brings to mind movies like “Very Bad Things,” “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “Shallow Grave,” films where someone dies under gruesome or mysterious circumstances and the remaining characters keep the death a secret because it benefits them somehow. “The Light Between Oceans,” a period piece set off the western coast of Australia, is a Hide the Body movie. Gotta say, didn’t see that coming.
This aspect of the plot wreaks havoc on the rest of the story, too. Try as they might to make a tasteful art film about love and betrayal – and for a few stretches, they succeed – the thriller angle of the story disrupts the tone once it comes to the forefront. There is clearly a lot going on between the ears of the main characters (grief has many layers), but very little of it is translated on screen for the viewer.
After serving his country in the Great War, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) enlists to man a lighthouse on an island off the western Australian coast. Before he leaves for the island, he meets cute with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander). When Tom receives an extended contract to stay on the island, he asks Isabel to marry him, so she can be with him on the island. The two try to start a family, but Isabel’s first two pregnancies end in miscarriage. Days after the second miscarriage, a dinghy washes ashore and inside it is a dead man and a live newborn baby. Isabel convinces Tom not to report the encounter, and then they bury the dead man and claim the newfound baby as their own.