Directed by Derek Cianfrance

Written by Derek Cianfrance, based on the novel by M L Stedman

133 minutes, rated M

M L Stedman’s best-seller from 2012 starts with the arrival on an island off Western Australia of a small boat, in which there is a dead man and a live baby. Isabel, wife of the lighthouse keeper, hears the baby’s cries as she is watering a rosemary bush, planted on the grave of her recently stillborn child.

It’s 1926 and her husband Tom has taken this job, 100 miles off the coast on Janus Rock, after the horrors of the Western Front. Tom and Isabel speak like Australians of the period in the book – calling each other ‘love’, for instance – but that has gone in the move to the big screen.

This was Stedman’s first novel, written mostly in London. She is Australian but practised law in the UK for a number of years before starting to write. Nine international publishers went after the book, perhaps sensing the riches to be had from a film deal. DreamWorks took up the film rights by November of 2012. Stephen Spielberg liked Colorado-born Derek Cianfrance as director after seeing his Blue Valentine in 2010. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander signed on in 2014, followed by Rachel Weisz.

It’s easy to understand that they could not find any Australian actors for the principal roles. It’s not like we have produced any international stars in the last 20 years.  And shooting in New Zealand is understandable: the plot calls for a lot of stormy weather. Some of it was done in Tasmania. And there are some familiar faces in support roles: Jack Thompson as a salty old dog who captains the supply boat to the island, Bryan Brown as a rich resident of the nearest mainland town, and Garry McDonald as Isabel’s father.

So far as I can tell there is no Australian money involved. It’s listed as a UK/NZ/US co-production so the producers could cast and shoot freely, but the result feels less home-grown than the book, especially in the flavour of dialogue.  It’s not like we’re not used to this in Australia: Robert Mitchum in The Sundowners (1960), Meryl Streep in Evil Angels (1988), a hundred others. We didn’t have stars of the status of Cate, Geoffrey, Naomi, Nicole, Hugh, Russell, Guy or the brothers Hemsworth in those days.  All must have been busy.

No matter, Cianfrance has assembled three of the best for this powerful, wrenching story about the difference between love and duty.  Fassbender brings unspoken intensity as Tom, a man trying to mend himself after the war took him apart. Vikander’s vibrating, passionate Isabel falls for him on first sight, when he comes to lunch with her family, before heading to the island. She is heartbroken too, after losing two brothers in the war. Fairly quickly they are married and enraptured by each other, on an island as windswept and beautiful as you could find in any work of romance fiction.

For that is what this is: a potboiler with a stronger sense of characterisation and moral jeopardy. Stedman’s legal background may explain this – she was interested in the differences between Isabel’s need to have and hold their newfound baby and Tom’s need to do the right thing. Biology vs duty.  Beyond that, she looks at the kind of ruthless entitlement that such a decision would require. That gives the film a certain modernity, despite the period setting.

Of course, we know how this plot will go. That’s part of the point of romance fiction – to fulfil expectations, rather than challenge them. Almost every plot point in the film arrives as if by decree. I could even predict lines of dialogue. And yet, the predicament has power. We know that someone will come for the baby; when we see Tom pick up a distinctive rattle from the boat, we know how. Rachel Weisz, as the child’s real mother, delivers every bit of the emotional honesty we would expect – and which the film needs.

It’s not an insult to call the film old-fashioned. Derek Cianfrance, a skilful director (The Place Beyond the Pines), wants to explore some of the byways of the great melodramas, within a universal and potent dilemma. He does that, with sweeping scenery and a stridently romantic score by Alexandre Desplat, and heartfelt performances. It’s almost irresistible in the strength of its emotions. Almost.