cinematic dating advice

The Big Lesson of The Light Between Oceans: Don’t Marry a Guy Who Lives in a Lighthouse, Dummy!

Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender in The Light Between Oceans. Photo: Touchstone Pictures

I recently went to see Derek Cianfrance’s new romantic drama, The Light Between Oceans, and, as the director intended, I felt feelings. Mostly sadness, along with intermittent arousal, and, at some points, hunger (the movie is 132 minutes, which is too long). But my overwhelming emotion while watching the film was frustration, spurred by one overriding conviction: If a guy you’ve just met invites you to move to a lighthouse with him — yes, even if he looks like Michael Fassbender — don’t do it. It’s a trap.

So, here’s what happens in this film: Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, an English World War I vet who goes to work as a lighthouse keeper in western Australia, because he has seen too much shit and wants some peace and quiet. Tom, we learn, is a solitary fellow who doesn’t like talking about his past, which is exactly the type of guy who gravitates to the punishing business of lighthouse-keeping. Unfortunately, his goal of solitude is interrupted when he falls in love with and marries vivacious local woman Isabel (real girlfriend Alicia Vikander, whom he started dating while on set), and she decides to move there with him. Tom, who is only supposed to be on the lighthouse for six months, decides to keep the job for three years. This turns out to be a very bad decision.

Initially, things between Tom and Isabel are good; they get to know each other and fall in love and don’t mind spending literally all their time together. The limited pros of lighthouse life include (1) lots of great chunky knitwear and (2) having sex as loudly as they like. But then things get complicated. Isabel suffers two miscarriages and sinks into a depression. Then one day, a dead man with a baby floats up in a boat, and Isabel really wants the baby, so they decide not to report it and raise the kid as their own, which seems okay, for a few years. Unfortunately, Rachel Weisz is billed third on the poster, so clearly at some point she’s going to show up and make baby-related trouble (okay, I’ll just tell you — turns out it’s her baby and she wants it back).

All of these problems could have been avoided if Isabel hadn’t agreed to move to this dumb lighthouse with this near-stranger in the first place. She could have sought better medical care on the mainland and had a baby on her own, or legally adopted a baby, or at the very least not messed up a bunch of people’s lives by taking one that didn’t belong to her. The film’s gender politics are a bit complicated, but Isabel seems to get a lot of flak for her selfish decisions while Tom gets to be the steadfast, morally principled wounded guy who makes tough choices. That is egregious, given that Tom is the one who chose to live in the stupid lighthouse in the first place.

Look, I know the postwar dating market is slim pickings, but there’s got to be at least one eligible man in western Australia who isn’t self-treating his PTSD by sequestering himself in punishing isolation on a windswept rock. Once Isabel found out about the living situation, it should have been an instant dealbreaker, or else she should have said, Tom, if you really care about me, you’ve got to quit your lighthouse job.

In general, I have a lot of trouble watching a lot of period romances for the same reason I do watching The Bachelor, because olden-day meet-cutes generally involve people making very SUDDEN and DRAMATIC life decisions while knowing very little about each other. Tom and Isabel are definitely offenders in this department. They go on one picnic, during which the emotionally damaged Tom explains that he, like Paul Simon, is a rock and an island, and that’s why he lives on a rock-island. Isabel, enticed by the prospect of dating someone with psychological issues, immediately proposes; they write each other a string of very thirsty letters (of course he’s thirsty, he’s living alone on a fucking lighthouse), and then they decide to get married so she can move in with him. People keep warning them about how the solitude of the lighthouse makes people go crazy and how the last lighthouse keeper committed suicide. They ignore these clear red flags and go on to make a series of problematic choices that end up ruining their own lives and the lives of others, their decision-making faculties warped by the very isolation they were warned about.

Watching The Light Between Oceans, I had a feeling similar to the one I got watching the Chris Soules season of The Bachelor, as I watched in horror as the contestants actually contemplated uprooting their lives and moving to very rural, depressed small-town Iowa to build a life with this farmer they met six weeks ago. I’ve screamed it at my screen before, and I’ll scream it again: DON’T MOVE TO ARLINGTON, IOWA, WITH THE FARMER. Related: DON’T MOVE TO THE LIGHTHOUSE WITH THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER.

Also, don’t steal a baby.

Thank you for listening.

Don’t Marry a Guy Who Lives in a Lighthouse, Dummy!