Michael Bergeron
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Oceans and Sunsets

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A couple of serious dramatic films, both from well regarded novels, open in Houston this holiday weekend. Both of the novelists have been compared to Thomas Hardy in the sense that the stories deal with tragic characters set against equally harsh environments.

The Light Between Oceans, based on a recent Australian novel by M.L. Stedman, stars Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander as a couple who live on a remote island “in post World War I Western Australia” where he tends a lighthouse. Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines, Blue Valentine) directs with an eye towards the isolation that forms the couple’s world.

After two miscarriages Vikander and Fassbender deal in realistic ways with their loss. A form of providence arrives when a small boat washes up on shore. On board are a dead man and a live baby. A hundred miles from the nearest port they only see a supply ship every couple of months. Rather than report the incident they adopt the infant as their own.

The Light Between Oceans wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s not hard to figure out what happens next. On a trip to visit her parents who live in the closest community Fassbender spies a woman (Rachel Weisz) grieving in front of a tombstone for her lost baby.

The moral implications of not reporting the child takes its toll amidst the beautiful wind swept locations. The Light Between Oceans, opening wide on Friday, constantly tugs at one’s emotions even while offering some unlikely uplifting twists.

Sunset Song, from a lauded 1932 novel by Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon and directed by the austere British director Terence Davies (Distant Lives, Still Voices, House of Mirth), follows a young woman as she comes of age on a Scottish farm. Set before and during World War I, the film mixes idyllic countryside beauty with the cruelty of human existence.

Agyness Deyn, an amazing actress whose star is on the rise, headlines as Chris Guthrie, the eldest child of a large family. Her father (Peter Mullan) may be worst parent ever, constantly punishing his brood for the smallest infraction. His strictness is so harsh that his wife poisons her newborn twins and herself rather than keep up the charade of a functional marriage.

What follows both celebrates the independence of a young woman fiinding her place in the world and the absurdity of war, which drives a wedge into Chris’ new life.

Sunset Song unwinds exclusively at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on Monday, September 5 at 1 pm and Sunday, September 11 at 5 pm.