THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS – Alexandre Desplat
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The Light Between Oceans is a romantic drama set in Australia in the 1920s. Based on the novel by M. L. Stedman and directed by Derek Cianfrance, it stars Michael Fassbender as Tom Sherborne, a veteran of World War I, now working as a lighthouse keeper off the western coast of the country with his wife, Isabel (Alicia Vikander). One day, Tom rescues a baby girl, who he finds washed up in a rowboat on the rocks near his home; assuming she is the only survivor of a shipwreck, Tom and Isabel decide to informally adopt the baby – whom they name Lucy – as their own. However, years later, when they return to the Australian mainland for a brief time, the once-happy family discovers that their decision to keep Lucy on that fateful day may result in terrible repercussions for all. The film also stars Rachel Weisz and Bryan Brown, and has been the recipient of a great deal of critical acclaim in the period leading up to its release.
The score for The Light Between Oceans is by the Oscar-winning French composer Alexandre Desplat, who seems to have been born to score films like this. Throughout his career Desplat has been responsible for some of the greatest ‘serious’ period romantic drama scores of the past 15 years – scores like The Luzhin Defence, Girl With a Pearl Earring, The Painted Veil, Lust Caution, and The Kings Speech, have cemented his reputation as the go-to composer for this type of film, and The Light Between Oceans follows very much in their illustrious footsteps. Director Cianfrance actually wanted Desplat to score his previous two films, Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, but was unable to secure his services then; their collaboration here, at the third time of asking, feels like serendipity.
Before filming even started Cianfrance had Desplat write a piano piece specifically for Alicia Vikander’s character, Isabel, to play on-screen. That melody, heard on the soundtrack CD in the fifth track, “Isabel,” is the thematic cornerstone of the score, informing the tonal palette and emotional range of the entire work. Much of the score is driven by the piano, which is impeccably performed throughout by Lithuanian virtuoso classical pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute, but Desplat’s orchestrations feature many of his usual choices, from the light and pretty woodwind writing to the elegant strings, harp glissandi, magical chimes, and almost subliminal brass textures that have dominated his writing in this genre for years.
As all Desplat scores do, The Light Between Oceans features several recurring themes, all of which revolve around each other in a complementary fashion, sometimes combining within the same cue, but more frequently heard as the standalone centerpiece of an individual track. The aforementioned Isabel’s theme is for Alicia Vikander’s character. It first appears in the opening cue, “Letters,” as a warm and welcoming classical piano theme, sunny and beguiling, accented by light prancing strings and pretty woodwinds, and underpinned with complicated harmonies from the cello and bass, but thereafter it actually disappears from the score for quite some time.
It is replaced in the main with Tom’s theme, for Michael Fassbender’s character, which is introduced in “Tom,” and is slightly darker, speaking to the damaged psyche of a man who suffered so much in WWI, and is using his self-imposed isolation on his lighthouse as a way to escape from his demons. Shimmering pianos, woodwinds, strings, harp, and a countermelody for soft horns dominate the theme, which has an overall mood of regret and loneliness. Interestingly, the chord progressions towards the end of the melodic line remind me greatly of the “Sky Ferry” theme from The Golden Compass, but more introverted; anyone who enjoyed that score as much as I did will enjoy the subtle allusions heard here.
Later, “To Resent” offers a bitter version of Tom’s theme for overlapping wavering strings, which are eventually joined by slightly dissonant piano chords intended to induce a feeling of restlessness. “Janus” presents a solo piano version of Tom’s theme, similar to the “Isabel” cue, slow and introspective, with a gorgeous and lithe performance from Jokubaviciute. “Hannah Roennfeldt” gives us a tortured sounding version of Tom’s theme, pretty but somewhat skewed, as if to make you feel uncomfortable, while “To Forgive” is the symmetrical opposite of “To Regret,” a counterbalancing of Tom’s theme with a piano statement filled with a calm determination, but also an overwhelming sense of relief.
However, as is always the case with Desplat scores, these thematic constructs are not all the score has to offer, and almost every cue features something worthy of note. “At First Sight” is a love theme of sorts for Tom and Isabel, a magical collision of mesmerizing dream-like textures and the merest hints of a whisper of a melody, which slowly emerges into a delicate, fleeting statement of Isabel’s theme on piano. “Lucy Grace” is a secondary theme for Tom and Isabel’s daughter; initially innocent, charming, and childlike in its simplicity, it becomes more complex and rewarding as it develops, blossoming into real beauty with the addition of chimes, marimba, and a more sparkling string accompaniment to the piano-led core.
“Path of Light” features yet more gorgeous piano lines, as well as an unusual string ‘sigh’ at the end of each bar; the second half of the cue is warm, not quite romantic, but gently welcoming, with strings adding depth and texture. Another outstanding cue is “The Return,” which has a definite John Barry flavor to its dramatic rendering. It reminds me of parts of The Scarlet Letter or Swept from the Sea, both period pieces that required a lilting classical touch to convey their emotions. The string writing in this cue is especially poignant, while the treacherous rumblings at the end of the track convey the imminent danger and potential tragedy about to befall the happy family, hitherto isolated from the world on their rocky outcrop at the edge of civilization.
As such, there is darkness, too. “The Dinghy,” for example, is dramatic and solemn, opening with cello chords that gradually give way to an undulating piano motif, eddying like the waves of the ocean. This prototypical Desplat piece is full of movement and rhythm, layers of sound which grow over time, with different instrumental combinations passing a simple motif around the different sections of the orchestra. “The Rattle” is equally dramatic, filled with brooding tones for bowed basses, threatening horns, and subliminal drumbeats like a hammering heart. One of the best tracks in the entire score is “A Wonderful Father,” which reaches Wojciech Kilar-esque heights of velvet-draped shade and minimalism. It takes a repeated phrase, and either adds or removes a new instrumental idea with each repetition of the melody – different parts of the woodwinds, different parts of the strings – as it builds to a climax, and then falls away to nothing. It’s hypnotic, full of drama, passion, and pathos, and is absolutely brilliant.
The score begins to build to its conclusion in “Still Your Husband,” a pensive, slightly apprehensive piece wherein the strings and piano gradually become more and more forceful as the cue develops, as if breathing a sigh of relief and letting go when permission is finally given to show emotions. The beguiling harmonies towards the end are heartbreakingly tender, the swell of the melody sublime. “Each Day We Spent Together” has yet more complex emotions; the strings are unsure, slightly nervous, but the pianos have a sentimental, warm streak. Then, as the track shifts into a movement-filled section with chugging strings and a faster, rhapsodic piano, the primary emotional content is again undermined by a subconscious drumbeat which has a funereal sense of finality, as well as a possible variation on the Kilar-esque Fatherhood motif. These dour ground bass and bass flute textures lead into a statement of Isabel’s theme for a heartbroken piano and glockenspiel combo, issuing what feels like a tender goodbye. The penultimate “To Be Loved” contains a full statement of Tom’s theme, as well as a return to the dream-like Tom and Isabel love theme, while the conclusive “The Light Between Oceans” returns to the beginning with an expansive statement of Isabel’s theme, bright and charming, classically rich, with fulsome strings, and Jokubaviciute’s lilting piano.
It has always confused me when I read statements from people saying there is no emotion in Alexandre Desplat’s music, and that this is the primary reason they have been unable to connect with his work. From a purely personal standpoint, I have always found Desplat’s music to be absolutely overflowing with emotion, but in listening to The Light Between Oceans it occurred to me that they are never straightforward. Nothing is ever happy and nothing else, sad and nothing else. His emotional content is often conflicted and conflicting, and quite challenging; it can change from one moment to the next, be happy and sad simultaneously, and can make the listener feel emotions that are intentionally ambiguous and open to interpretation; you are never told what to feel – you have to work it out for yourself. I have always found that to be one of the things that draws me to his music, but I can also absolutely see how it would have the opposite effect on others, and drive them away.
In terms of this genre specifically, it is becoming apparent to me that Desplat is drawn to movies with leading male characters who have trouble expressing their emotions – Aleksandr Luzhin in The Luzhin Defence, Johannes Vermeer in Girl With a Pearl Earring, Walter Fane in The Painted Veil, King George VI in The King’s Speech. These were all taciturn men, full of deep feeling, but who were stifled by custom and society to such an extent that they could never fully express them, at least publicly. Desplat’s music hints at their emotional turmoil, but has to keep things in check; they have to be restrained in order to not overwhelm the character, and subsequently the smallest flourish can have a profound impact in context. The Tom character in The Light Between Oceans fits this mould in very much the same way, and as such the score treads a similar path.
If you have enjoyed any of the Desplat scores mentioned in this review, then The Light Between Oceans will undoubtedly appeal to your sensibility. It showcases everything I love about his music, from the rich and classical orchestrations, to the intricate thematic development, and the heartfelt emotional content. One thing I should mention is that, unlike most recent Desplat scores, this one was recorded in New York rather than London, and for some reason it occasionally suffers a little, sonically – some of the exceptionally high range sounds feel less exacting and precise than usual – which is terribly surprising considering Desplat’s usual crystalline sound. That one small issue aside, The Light Between Oceans is in all other aspects an outstanding example of serious, adult, dramatic film music, one of the best of its type this year, and which will surely contend for end-of-year awards.
Buy the Light Between Oceans soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Letters (2:00)
- Tom (3:06)
- At First Sight (3:14)
- The Dinghy (2:20)
- Isabel (1:28)
- In God’s Hands (4:57)
- The Rattle (2:36)
- To Resent (4:35)
- Janus (1:48)
- A Wonderful Father (3:21)
- Lucy Grace (3:34)
- Path of Light (2:36)
- The Return (4:00)
- Hannah Roennfeldt (2:20)
- Still Your Husband (4:57)
- To Forgive (1:40)
- Each Day We Spent Together (4:48)
- To Be Loved (4:59)
- The Light Between Oceans (4:03)
Running Time: 62 minutes 21 seconds
Lakeshore Records (2016)
Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Alexandre Desplat, Jean-Pascal Beintus, Sylvain Morizet and Nicolas Charron. Featured musical soloist Ieva Jokubaviciute. Recorded and mixed by Joel Iwataki. Edited by Suzana Perić. Album produced by Dominique Lemonnier, Skip Williamson and Brian McNelis.