Tales of beautiful woe
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