But feel free to read on further as all three films are truly astonishing pieces of cinema.
With his films all sharing similar themes of familial entanglement, loss and moral dilemmas, Cianfrance has also written all three films reviewed here as well as his first cinematic release "Brother Tied" in 1998 and in the twelve years between the release of Brother Tied and Blue Valentine he helmed numerous TV and short movies. I have been unable to secure a copy of 1998's Brother Tied so I am only focusing on his three more recent releases, all of whom are very dear to my heart.
With a cast of so few characters and many of which melt into the background and provide only minimal cameo appearances, it's pivotal that the central and joint headline performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams drive the film. And they do so magnificently in this heart breaking tale of loss, growing up and all consuming love in middle America. Written by Director Cianfrance alongside Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne, the film explores the highs and lows of blossoming love through two deeply layered characters dealing with their personal demons and desperately seeking an almost old fashioned love, in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer and for a love that will triumph over all. Presented in a non-linear narrative timeline, the film is rooted in the present as we see two parents already showing signs of their fractured and strained relationship in the film's earliest scenes but through regular flashbacks we are drawn into their happier and loving times, through their sweet and affecting dating, of a man head over heels in love with a woman and their eventual marriage. There is far, far more but plot spoilers prevent me from elaborating!
From these earliest, present day scenes of the film it quickly becomes evident that the now long married couple are struggling and at odds with each other. Tension and uncertainty fill the opening few minutes and there is an air of them living two distinct lives but anchored by their beautiful daughter "Frankie" (Faith Wladyka). Their entire approach to the coming day is separate from the other as "Dean" (Ryan Gosling) jokes around with his daughter and misjudges a joint attempt at rousing "Cindy" (Michelle Williams) from her sleep. Quickly they each drive to their respective jobs but again the differences between them couldn't be more apparent, Dean already drinking and driving fast and Cindy far more circumspect and methodical. They remain outsiders and insular, as they were when they first met all those years ago.
Cindy (Michelle Williams) Fully deserving of her 2011 Oscar Nomination for Best Actress, this is Michelle Williams' most accomplished and stellar performance of her career to date. Cindy is seemingly following her parents fractured and unhappy demise of a marriage falling apart and their love lost. A nervous yet motivated and ambitious outsider, she dreams of a fulfilling medical career and in addition to her studies, cares for her elderly grandmother. Perhaps given free reign away from her parents it is with her "Gramma" (Jen Jones) that Cindy flowers and questions the nature of love and lifelong relationships with a telling "How do you trust your feelings when they disappear?". A truly multi layered and stunning portrayal of young love and broken dreams, Cindy's carefree dancing and flirting with Dean in the second act of the film is sublime.
Dean (Ryan Gosling) Seen in the earliest segments of the film as a devoted Father but angry and angst ridden, this is far from the Dean we see portrayed by Gosling in the flashback sequences. There are deeper scars but Dean hides these behind a carefree and free spirited nature. Simple, kind hearted and hard working, this is perfectly encapsulated by his re-decoration of an elderly man's room in a retirement home and also sets him on the path to his one true love. An outsider who is happy with his lot in life but all the while controlling the inner demons of his past, he falls completely and unequivocally in love with Cindy, come what may. It's a stark and very open portrayal at times, and Gosling again excels.
Stand out supporting roles are headed by the youngest cast member Faith Wladyka as the couple's young daughter "Frankie" and it's an accomplished performance in a demanding and adult film for someone so young. Cindy's College love "Bobby" is portrayed by Mike Vogel and the excellent John Doman is superb as "Jerry". This heart breaking love story is brilliantly told through the non linear structure and although both the beginning and the end are rooted in the present, there are wonderful flashbacks woven into the narrative that break your heart still further. All involve our young couple as their love begins to grow and these are brilliantly encapsulated on their wedding day, their elongated cuddle on the back of a bus and the film's absolute stand out scene, as they flirt, dance and sing in a shop doorway. If that scene doesn't break your heart, then the ending won't either, but then again, you clearly have a heart of made of pure stone! Weaved in amongst these flashbacks are the couple's present day existence and Dean, desperately wanting to rekindle their love and affection, persuades a reluctant Cindy to go away to a hotel for the evening to "get drunk and make love". Cindy has no desire whatsoever to do so but reluctantly agrees. Here is my dissection of the three brief segments that encapsulate Cindy and Dean's relationship as they enter the "Future Room" at the Cindy titled "Cheesy Sex Motel":
On entering the Future Room or "Robot's Vagina" as Dean describes it, he in particular is childishly excited at their new environs while Cindy is anything but, immediately fixing herself a drink and complaining at the lack of a fridge or windows in their room. Dean continues to lighten the atmosphere, marvelling at their future room and playing pranks but Cindy remains totally unmoved. Following a telephone call to their daughter Frankie, Cindy escapes for a shower alone but is soon joined by Dean and he tries to seduce her not once but twice, but is rebuked both times.
An exasperated Dean returns to the room after the shower with a bucket of ice and the couple share a barbed but brief conversation as to why he may be "grumpy". We cut to Dean inserting a CD into the player and trying again to seduce his wife with their song, "You and Me" by Penny and the Quarters. As the song plays out the couple share a cigarette and a drink before dancing to their shared song of many years ago. Dean is in his element, slow dancing with his wife to his favourite song but Cindy remains stiff, unsmiling and as cold as the frosty blue palette of the scene.
When the scene resumes it's fixed on a close up of a bored and disinterested Cindy, the frosty blue palette of the hotel scene(s) now starkly evident. The camera cuts between the two as they share their evening meal but the tension is palpable and rising by the second. "Why don't you do something?" Cindy asks candidly, goading Dean into saying that he is simply happy with his lot in life, a job and a beautiful family he adores but for Cindy this isn't enough. She wants him to explore his talents more, refrain from drinking the minute he awakes in the morning and do something. The bitter exchange ends with Cindy, now more than a little drunk, goading him further "I'd like to see you think about what you say instead of saying what you think" before the scene cuts to a play fight accompanied by The Platters "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes".
Both are now admittedly drunk, with Dean falling over off camera and calling Cindy for her help. Dragging her down to the floor, Dean is showering his wife with affection, repeatedly calling her "love" and "baby" as he tries to seduce her again but in the midst of which he asks her to have another baby with him. Cindy is unmoved and refuses to answer but the couple playfully, then seriously begin to engage in rough and violent love making. This is not what Dean wants and he cannot do it and they part in anger, Cindy barricading herself against the bathroom door while Dean repeatedly asks her to open the door.
A small further hotel scene follows, with Cindy late and rushing for work, leaving a passed out drunk Dean on the hotel floor. When he awakens, he discovers Cindy has left in their car and has left a note. After drinking a considerable amount of leftover vodka, Dean rouses himself and organises transport home. The film continues from here, weaving the present with the past until the film's heart breaking climax.
The film is centred in Schenectady, New York and covers a fifteen year span in the lives of a working mother, a motorcycle stuntman, an awkward outsider, a ruthless career politician and several members of the corrupt local Police Force. It's a male heavy cast and story and on one level it's a simple allegory to reaping the sins of the Father, but it's far more than that. It's a reflection on the decisions taken in life, how these affect the loved ones that surround us and how the circle of life continues to turn come what may. It's also the tale of a drifter, pure of heart but taking a chance and damned forever by the circumstances and it's a flat out triumph in the hands of Director Cianfrance.
The stellar cast is briefly appraised below in a character by character analysis, however I have deliberately kept this both brief and vague to give a flavour for their initial introduction into the film. Another compelling aspect of this film is that every character has a large narrative arc and nothing is quite what it seems at first glance, even with the supporting cast of cameo roles beginning with another brilliant performance from Bruce Greenwood as the ruthless and self centred District Attorney "Bill Killkullen". His character is epitomised in his rebuke of a hand shake mid way through the film "You're not gonna shake my fucking hand pal. I'll make you Assistant DA, but I'll never shake your fucking hand". Mahersala Ali is superb throughout Acts 1 and 3 as Jason's Father "Cofi" and further important cameo roles are provided by Gabe Fazio as "Scott" and Harris Yulin excels as Avery's Father "Al Cross". But there are many more cameo roles supporting the stellar star cast who bring Cianfrance's vision to life so vividly:
Luke (Ryan Gosling) Heavily tattooed motorcycle stuntman living day to day and travelling city to city for a meagre living. Until he meets an old flame and his life changes forever and he's not going back, whatever the odds. Take his role in the wonderful "Drive" & substitute his car for a bike! But that unjustly diminishes another wonderful performance from Ryan Gosling.
Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) Garage owner & would be partner of Luke. He has a proposition that will ultimately change their lives forever & their joint scene accompanied by Bruce Springsteen's Dancing in the Dark is a real highlight. As is his measured performance.
Avery (Bradley Cooper) Yet another fantastic performance from Cooper as the idealistic yet flawed local Police Officer. He may be a "squeaky clean, fucking lawyer with a medal of honour" but he's much more than that. Cooper steals nearly every scene he is in but is outstanding during his psychological evaluation.
Deluca (Ray Liotta) As we've come to expect from Liotta, this is an accomplished cameo role of a corrupt Police Officer on the take who will ruthlessly destroy anyone who gets in his way. Often shot slightly off camera and from an obscure angle to reflect his out of kilter character.
AJ (Emory Cohen) 17 and fresh to a new College, he's a bored rebellious teenager always looking for action and acts far older than his tender years. Except in the presence of his Father. An outstanding, unnerving performance from Cohen.
Jason (Dane DeHaan) Similar age to AJ and they share a rebellious streak but very little else. A "loner stoner" maybe but he has his sights set far higher than that. DeHann's performance ranks with the very best of his illustrious cast here.
"Sometimes it's better to leave the past in the past"
"I'm looking to get away from it all for a while" and thus begins Derek Cianfrance's fourth feature length film. Based on the novel by M L Stedman and adapted for the screen again by the Director himself, the film has a vast cast of supporting roles but it's ostensibly a two hander featuring and starring Michael Fassbender as "Tom Sherbourne" a World War 1 Veteran seeking a quiet and isolated life after serving in the War for four years and Alicia Vikander as "Isabel Graysmark". After securing a temporary six month role as the new Lighthouse Keeper at Janus Rock after the previous keeper suffered from "cabin fever", Tom meets local dignitaries and instantly falls in love with young Isabel. They have lived such differing lives yet their instant love for each other brings them together as they exchange letters between the remote lighthouse where Tom is stationed and the coastal mainland where Isabel resides. Tom finds much solace in his initial spell at the lighthouse as it enables him isolated time to think and reflect on his experiences and perhaps heal from his wartime experiences but remains quiet, withdrawn and lost in his thoughts. Desperate to be together and share a life and family together, Isabel proposes to Tom and when his temporary contract is extended to three years they marry and move to the island surrounding the lighthouse. Still early in the narrative of the film, Isabel suffers two traumatic miscarriages and fears she may never be able to have children. With both Isabel and Tom struggling to deal with their loss and becoming more withdrawn, a rowing boat washes ashore and changes the course of their lives.
This film is far from a simple two hand affair but to provide anything further would enter into spoiler territory so I'll simply add that supporting roles abound in this deeply affecting romantic drama. The highlighted supporting roles all live on the mainland away from the lighthouse and fall to Bryan Brown as "Septimus Potts", Thomas Unger as "Bluey", Emily Barclay as "Gwen Potts", Jack Thompson as "Ralph Addicott" and Rachel Weisz as "Hannah Roennfeldt". I have left all of these supporting roles deliberately vague but suffice to say all have an important role to play in the ensuing drama.
Following familiar Cianfrance motifs of familial loss and moral dilemmas, The Light Between Oceans is a beautifully crafted, slow burning affair that whilst not matching his previous two films remains a recommended watch. Alexandre Desplat's wonderful musical score accompanies the visual tone of the film perfectly and further credit must be paid to Director of Photography Adam Arkapaw for his stunning visuals, the highlight of which (and there are many) is represented above as the young lovers enjoy a picnic on a clifftop against a setting sun. Setting suns and indeed starry nights are another motif of the this film and perhaps a metaphor for the literal ending of a day but perhaps more the finishing of a memory. As in my chosen tagline at the beginning of this review, Tom prefers now to leave the past in the past and enjoy the new dawning day. This is certainly correct for the film but maybe I've misconstrued the meaning of the sun and stars! Regardless, visually they enhance an already beautifully framed and somewhat old fashioned film and another heart rending romantic drama from Director Cianfrance that I've taken to my heart.