Tales of beau­ti­ful woe

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - HK | CULTURE - By EL­IZ­A­BETH KERR

One of the great strengths of cin­ema, if you can call it that, is its abil­ity to make ab­ject mis­ery look lu­mi­nous. How many times has a lead char­ac­ter grown ex­po­nen­tially more beau­ti­ful the closer she gets to death? The an­swer is: many. Ac­cord­ing to Hol­ly­wood, life dur­ing wartime is among the most glam­orous. Rarely has suf­fer­ing looked as sump­tu­ously po­etic and ro­man­tic as it does in Derek Cian­france’s The Light be­tween Oceans and Natalie Port­man’s A Tale of Love and Dark­ness. If only the films had been as in­tel­lec­tu­ally and emo­tion­ally af­fect­ing as they are aes­thet­i­cally!

Based on M.L. St­ed­man’s 2012 novel, Cian­france’s Oceans com­bines the per­sonal con­nec­tion at the heart of his Blue Valen­tine and the ex­plo­ration of moral gray zones in The Place be­yond the Pines. World War I vet­eran Tom Sher­bourne (Michael Fass­ben­der) opts for an iso­lated light­house keeper’s job af­ter re­turn­ing home, in part as a way to try and deal with the lin­ger­ing guilt of sur­viv­ing the war so many died in. Even­tu­ally he meets Is­abel (Ali­cia Vikan­der) and sur­prises him­self by fall­ing in love. The cou­ple re­tires to a happy life on the is­land save for the fact they are un­able to have chil­dren. When a dinghy washes ashore one day with a dead man and his in­fant daugh­ter aboard, the Moses-like child be­comes the blessed last piece of the fam­ily.

In ac­tress Port­man’s di­rec­to­rial de­but, the set­ting is Jerusalem at the end of the Bri­tish Man­date. Like in Amos Oz’s 2002 book, Dark­ness chron­i­cles the early years of the Is­raeli state, the first Arab-Is­raeli con­flicts and the slow emo­tional and phys­i­cal de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of Amos’s (Amir Tessler) mother, Fa­nia (Port­man). Born to a wealthy fam­ily in Eastern Europe, Fa­nia es­caped to Is­rael just ahead of a mas­sacre of Jews in World War II, ul­ti­mately set­tling down with the book­ish but earnest Arieh (Gi­lad Ka­hana). Fa­nia is clearly un­happy with her new, lower sta­tion in the world, and escapes much of her dis­sat­is­fac­tion through her vivid imag­i­na­tion and the sto­ries she tells Amos.

The prob­lems with both The Light be­tween Oceans and A Tale of Love and Dark­ness are, ob­vi­ously, not in the per­for­mances: there are four Os­car-nom­i­nees/win­ners be­tween them. Vikan­der is marginally over­wrought as a woman feel­ing in­com­plete, but when she steels her­self against her own moral com­pass her per­for­mance takes on a more nu­anced tone. Fass­ben­der once again proves he is the cur­rent mas­ter of tightly con­trolled mas­cu­line vul­ner­a­bil­ity, and his in­her­ent em­pa­thy for Han­nah (Rachel Weisz), the woman whose baby the cou­ple steals, is the film’s nar­ra­tive en­gine. Weisz is en­vi­ous, frus­trated, con­flicted and fu­ri­ous as de­manded, and pitch per­fect ev­ery time. The weak link might be Port­man, who in­dulges her dreamier, melo­dra­matic in­stincts a bit too fre­quently.

But it is Oceans’ ma­nip­u­la­tive cool­ness and Dark­ness’ in­ert for­mal­ity that turn out to be their fun­da­men­tal flaws. Un­fair though it may be, it is of­ten im­pos­si­ble not to view Is­abel’s de­ci­sions through a mod­ern moral fil­ter, mut­ing any kind of res­o­nance the story may gen­er­ate. And while Port­man clearly has an eye for im­agery—the flights of fan­tasy in­serted be­tween ma­jor per­sonal and his­tor­i­cal touch­stones, for ex­am­ple—her grasp of nar­ra­tive from a cre­ative point of view is thin. The ma­te­rial is ob­vi­ously near and dear to her heart, but Port­man, both as a writer and di­rec­tor, never gen­er­ates a real sense of lives, nations, peace, the fu­ture… what­ever, be­ing at stake. It doesn’t help that Tessler plays Amos over a span of five years, and the young ac­tor isn’t re­ally up to the task. Late For­ties Is­rael is a vivid time that should have a vivid screen pres­ence that doesn’t re­call a 1970s tele­vi­sion fam­ily drama

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