The Light Between Oceans

  • 08:53 on 17th Oct 2016
  • By Karol Krok


The Light Between Oceans directed by Derek Cianfrance and starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz tells the story of a lighthouse keeper Tom and his wife Isabel in the 1920’s living off the coast of Western Australia, who raise a baby they rescue from an adrift rowboat. Years later, the couple discovers the child’s true parentage and are faced with the moral dilemma of their actions. On top of an impressive cast this film adaptation of Australian author M. L. Stedman’s  acclaimed novel is graced by an elegant score by the French composer Alexandre Desplat.

Desplat is inarguably one of the top composers working today in film music and not to mention one of the busiest. His output in the past decade has been prolific to say the least as the composer is churning out music at tremendous rate and the dramatic score for The Light Between the Oceans is just one of the 10(!) assignments slated for him this year alone. And even though the composer keeps himself hectically busy, this quantity doesn’t seem to come at the cost of quality as the story of The Light Between Oceans is fertile ground for potent dramatic scoring and the French maestro takes the opportunity to provide a melodious, often subtle but emotionally resonant score for the movie.

The soundtrack features the composer’s unmistakable trademark sound with his usual nuanced delicate and refined orchestrations and the writing sports numerous and varied thematic ideas for soloist instruments and the symphony orchestra. Piano takes centre stage as the true voice of the score and its emotions with hardly a track on the album where its familiar yet elegant tones are not featured. This is evinced by the joyously light opening piece "Letters",where piano first presents a hopeful theme over jaunty rhythmic strings before the whole ensemble takes up the melody full of optimism and Desplat’s fine orchestrations shine through. This same theme is reprised very sparingly throughout and appears later most prominently in "Isabel" on solo piano, where the slightly halting performance gives it a feeling of affecting simplicity and it bookends the whole work in "The Light Between Oceans," but more on that later.

After this delightful disc opener the listener dives into more troubled waters in the impassioned "Tom" where minimalistic harp figures and string patterns ebb and swell while the composer presents on top of them a second prominent theme on strings and woodwinds, a lovely but moody melody which is filled with slow burning urgency and hints at tragedy. Desplat’s trademark minimalism in the rolling flute and piano ostinato figures in "The Dinghy" swell with yearning and foreboding in equal measure as the theme from "Tom" again reappears full of dramatic meaning. This same idea which is so full of tragic emotion is further explored in "To Resent" where it receives a deliberately slow reading full of restrained heartache and in "Janus" Desplat reveals it in its pared down form on forlorn solo piano, where notes fall as if in tired resignation.

It is not all doom and anguished emotional gloom though and there is an entrancing luminous quality to "In God’s Hands" where at first pensively searching piano and woodwind melody alternates with a delightfully romantic sunny material for piano and solo flute but the serious tone prevails in the end, illustrating the composer’s well honed sense of musical storytelling.  "At First Sight" is a portrait of silent awe and tenderness achieved through layers of long luminous string chords and subtle interpolation of the hopeful theme heard in "Letters". "Lucy - Grace" presents yet another new theme, a swaying airy and hopeful waltzing melody for piano and strings done with typical Desplat panache which turns this piece into something entrancing through the use of careful orchestrational choices. "Path of Light" reveals suddenly how the anguished slow burning theme from "Tom" transforms into a gorgeous serene meditation on piano and reveals a glimmer of redemption and hope, a mark of a masterful musical storyteller who can manipulate his material with such intelligence and ease.

"A Wonderful Father" is an exercise in well-constructed dramatic musical build-up where an ever expanding tragic string adagio grows slowly but surely to a powerful and turbulent conclusion, which in Desplat’s hands has such perfect feeling of inevitability.  The melodic bounties of the album do not end here. "The Return" reveals yet another new theme, an utterly tragic but tender melody first on the ever present piano, then elaborated by the orchestra as it conveys perfectly a quiet heartache before sinking ominously in a bed of disturbing rumbling lower strings, another deft musical miniature of an emotional state.

The composer has such fine knack for saying so much with economy and it is on full display in the final part of the score. In "Still Your Husband" the gradually evolving theme full of longing blooms into a lengthy exploration for orchestra, piano and flutes which at times brings to mind John Barry’s most sensuous compositions. The musical journey reaches its conclusion on the album with two pieces "Each Day We Spend Together" and  "To Be Loved", but Desplat keeps his expression mostly restrained, the music building around the melody first heard in "Still Your Husband" with a clear sense of finality and fulfilment. But while penultimate track ends in a subtle sigh of the theme we first heard in "Tom" rather than a swell of emotion the album comes a full circle with "The Light Between Oceans" where the tender and redemptive melody that opened the score finally receives a terrific lengthy send-off from the full ensemble and piano and allows the listener a gentle musical catharsis after all the sombre and tragic material that has come before it.

The Light Between Oceans is an elegant and well-crafted work from Desplat. It is quite delicate and often full of subtle gestures while remaining very melodic and accessible throughout and also in a very typical fashion for the composer’s music reveals its full beauty and intricacy slowly over numerous listens. The music contains intelligently conceived lingering emotionality that achieves its impact through the accumulation of feeling over the period of the narrative arc of the album rather than through constant emotional fireworks. Undeniably it reminds a seasoned Desplat fan of his previous works as it shares much of the same aesthetics, stylistic tricks and orchestrations of numerous past scores and brings very little new to the table in terms of style or form but in my opinion the mature dramatic strength and beauty sets this score above quite a few of his soundtracks from the last decade. And while I would hesitate to call it a classic, it is another very fine effort from monsieur Desplat and a beautiful addition to his rapidly growing discography and indeed to any Desplat fan’s collection. Recommended!

-Mikko Ojala


The Light Between Oceans is out now from Lakeshore Records




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