Complex ‘Light Between Oceans’ unfolds slowly

What It’s About: The gorgeous-looking, sweeping saga “The Light Between Oceans” takes its sweet time to unfold a complex family melodrama while it tests our emotional endurance.

Ambitious auteur Derek Cianfrance (“The Place Beyond the Pines”) has crafted a throwback to lush-looking 1950s soap opera fare like “Peyton Place.” As writer-director, he has adapted M.L. Stedman’s 2012 bestseller that tests the moral compass of its principal characters.

The time is 1918 in sparsely populated West Australia. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is a dutiful soldier, home after fighting in World War I, who welcomes the solitude filling in as a lighthouse keeper on the remote island Janus. It’s where the Southern and Indian Oceans meet.

He marries Isabel (Alicia Vikander), and their idyllic life takes a tragic turn when she suffers two miscarriages. One day, a boat washes ashore with a baby on board, and the baby’s dead father. A crestfallen Isabel pleads with Tom to raise the child as their own, covering up the truth as an early arrival.

But the joy of raising Lucy (Florence Clery) is short-lived, as they encounter Hannah (Rachel Weisz), who lost her husband and baby at sea. Or so she thought. Tom wrestles with doing the right thing — should he expose the lies or keep up the charade?

Heartstrings are tugged and guts are wrenched as folks deal with painful consequences.

Performances: Oscar nominee Fassbender (“Steve Jobs”) often gives the best performance in a film, but both Oscar winners Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”) and Rachel Weisz (“The Constant Gardener”) prove their muscle too as they traverse a thorny emotional journey.

Their strong performances smooth over the film’s rough patches, and keep us involved, even in a very saggy third act.

What Works: Cianfrance, enamored with the stunning vistas of the seas and terrain, spends much time on the use of light on screen. Sometimes, scenes are awash in natural light while other times he lingers on the sun-dappled settings a bit too long. It’s one beautiful shot after another.

Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s (“True Detective,” Season I), sumptuous filming of the topography and era is flawless.

The rich storytelling recalls a time when the big screen had mega-stars and major themes to explore.

What Doesn’t Work: Cianfrance’s deliberate and measured pace gets tedious for modern audiences, and seems stiff at times.

But he has aimed high — revealing the myriad of life complications in an old-fashioned epic way.

“The Light Between Oceans”

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson

Rated: PG-13 for thematic material and some sexual content

Length: 2:12