When was the last time you bawled at the movies? Or even just let slip a small snuffle? It’s a pretty unfashionable notion these days, the idea of movies being moving. Critics disdain films for “sinking” into sentimentality or praise them for “avoiding” melodrama in ways that would have been baffling to the golden age of Hollywood. To a Chaplin or a Capra or a Cukor, making an unmoving movie would have been like telling an unfunny joke or staging an unthrilling chariot chase: Where’s the fun in that?
So we should all pay attention when a director as impeccably credentialed as Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) decides to come on a little Oprah, as he does in his new movie, The Light Between the Oceans (out September 2), based on the novel by M. L. Stedman. It stars Michael Fassbender as a man returning from the First World War to tend a lighthouse off the western coast of Australia. As silent, upright, and lonesome as his lighthouse—metaphor alert! Virginia Woolf wants her symbolism back!—he falls in love with a local girl, played by a radiant Alicia Vikander (Fassbender’s real-life girlfriend). They marry, only for Vikander to suffer a wrenching series of miscarriages. Then, one day, a rowboat washes up onshore. And in the boat is a baby. How far you fall for what follows will depend on whether you think a baby on the beach worthy of (a) further investigation or (b) adoption. If (b), then you will be on board with Cianfrance’s beautifully shot film—a Nicholas Sparks movie for those who wouldn’t normally be seen dead at a Nicholas Sparks movie.
Most modern tearjerkers have the emotional affect of the teenagers they are aimed at. Or of the toddlers within us in the case of Pixar films. Our most talented auteurs—Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, Cary Fukunaga—pride themselves instead on their steely lack of compassion. Their films are assault courses, not empathy wells. The old guard, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg, feel like big softies by comparison.
All good melodramas depend on great love sundered. “Unless the course of love is hindered there is no ‘romance,’” wrote Denis de Rougemont in 1940’s Love in the Western World. It’s one reason some of our most wrenching love stories recently have been gay rather than straight: Brokeback Mountain, Milk, Behind the Candelabra, Carol. Cianfrance’s film follows the Kramer vs. Kramer course: Once the child’s real mother (Rachel Weisz) shows up, the film becomes a three-way tug-of-love involving a four-year-old. Weisz so wipes the floor with everyone—emotionally, morally—I’m not sure Cianfrance ever quite manages to retilt the deck of his drama toward Vikander, whose bond with the girl is the stuff of a three-minute montage, but you cannot fault him for trying. Those awaiting the Gone with the Wind for our times may have to wait a little longer—the summer of 2018, to be precise, when a wrenching tale of tumultuous passion and tested loyalties, loves lost and found, patiently awaits. I’m referring, of course, to Toy Story 4. Stock up on Kleenex.