After serving in World War I, Tom Sherbourne seeks some time for solitude and reflection. He is hired as the lighthouse keeper at Janus Rock, a very remote location off the coast of Australia. While ashore, Tom falls in love with Isabel, and in 1921 they marry; Isabel accompanies Tom to the lighthouse and they share the secluded location. In the first three years of their marriage, they suffer two miscarriages. Right after the second miscarriage, a bizarre event happens that changes their world. A lifeboat drifts nearby, and a crying baby summons their attention. Tom and Isabel discover a baby near starvation and her recently-deceased father. Tom knows that he should report this finding to the authorities, but Isabel is desperate for a child and believes that the authorities would require the baby to be sent to an orphanage. Tom acquiesces; they bury the man and begin raising the baby as their own. They name her Lucy.
*SPOILERS AHEAD THE REST OF THE WAY*
Shortly afterwards, Tom encounters Hannah as she grieves at a tombstone set up for her husband and baby Grace, who were both supposedly lost at sea. Tom believes that Lucy might be Grace, and that Hannah may be the mother of his daughter. Conscious stricken, he leaves anonymous clues to reassure Hannah that her daughter is OK. This does not comfort her; instead, she begins working to find her missing daughter, who she now believes to be alive. Three years later, Hannah has figured out that Tom and Isabel have her daughter. Although he has kept his actions secret from Isabel, Tom must prepare himself to face the consequences of his past actions, and everyone else must deal with the aftermath of the situation as well. Lucy is taken to Hannah, and finds it very difficult to adjust to life with a new parent. Hannah struggles because Lucy does not quickly warm to her; she refuses to respond to her new name and tries to run away to her former home. Isabel feels betrayed by Tom, and the loss of Lucy mirrors the pain she felt several years ago at her miscarriages; she is given a choice: if she will offer testimony against Tom in court (which she would know to be false), she can raise Lucy.
The Adoption Connection
Tom and Isabel wanted to be parents. They had suffered through miscarriages, and when they encountered Lucy, alone and afraid in a lifeboat, they must have had a range of conflicting thoughts. Tom knew they ought to report her. Isabel wanted to make sure that the baby didn’t go to an orphanage, and wanted to be the parent of the baby. Tom and Isabel eventually accepted one story of the baby, and acted in accordance to it: she is without parents and in danger, and needs to be raised; they can’t report this, or they will lose her. They tell her, “You are our baby, and you came to us.” However, when Tom learns the true story, he realizes that the story he and Isabel chose to believe about the baby isn’t true.
Tom and Isabel told falsehoods to make others believe the story they had created for the baby, thinking that the truth was unknowable. When the truth comes to light, so do the lies that Tom and Isabel told, and because of these, Tom is nearly convicted of even worse crimes.
The baby was named Grace at birth, but was named Lucy by Tom and Isabel. When she returns to her mother, as a toddler, she is uncomfortable with her birth name. Eventually, she uses both names.
One character reflects on losing a child, “If a parent loses a child, there is no label. You’re still a mother or father even if you no longer have the child.” Isabel, who has lost her brothers in World War I, wonders whether she is still a sister.
*BIG SPOILER* Lucy is raised by her birth mother. As an adult, she returns to find Tom; Isabel has already died. Lucy thanks him for saving her, introduces him to her own son, and says that she would like to visit Tom again in the future.
The Light Between Oceans makes it possible to see the mixed motivations that informed Tom and Isabel’s choices. Hannah eventually is able to condemn their actions while also having empathy for them.
The film also stands as a challenge to the oversimplified stories that we sometimes tell ourselves. Isabel said that the baby was brought to them, not through coincidence; the true story is much sadder but much fuller.
There’s quite a lot of loss in this film: siblings who have died in a war, two miscarriages, Hannah mourning for her lost husband and baby, and Isabel having Lucy torn from her hands by the police. Some viewers might find any or all of these scenes to be emotionally triggering. One of Isabel’s miscarriages might be particularly hard, as she spends the night outside, alone in a storm while Tom is, unaware of her plight, locked away in the lighthouse.
Tom and Isabel do want to help the baby, but perhaps because of Isabel’s strong desire to be a parent, they make choices to create the image that the baby was born to them. In doing this, they are dishonest, and it hurts them and others. They bury the baby’s father and tell no one of his body. They take down the marker for one of Isabel’s miscarried babies. They lie to her family. The film is a strong depiction of both the reasons why some people might lie about a baby’s origins, and the horrible pain that can be caused by those lies. A character suggested earlier that “no one will know” about their lie. That turned out to be very wrong. Tom continues spinning lies in an effort to protect his wife, and it almost gets him charged with murder.
It’s a hard film. Isabel believed that it was “no coincidence” that brought the baby to them – but the true story is a hard one to swallow; the baby’s dad was fleeing from persecution when he died.
Perhaps providence had Tom and Isabel in place to save the baby’s life, but they overreached their authority when they chose not to report finding her; had they reported her, she would have been returned immediately to her mother.
In another hard scene, Hannah meets Lucy; Hannah asks Lucy her name, suspecting but not knowing that Lucy is her long-lost daughter. When Lucy is returned to her original family and name, she cries, refuses to be called Grace, and says, “I want my real mom.”
After watching this film, I felt sorrowful and understanding, condemning and empathetic. The Light Between Oceans is gripping, but could also be troubling or emotionally triggering for audiences touched by adoption, child loss, or infertility. Tom’s and Isabel’s actions are understandable, but very wrong. Their grief at losing Lucy is very real. Hannah’s grief at losing Grace is very real. Isabel’s depression after her miscarriages is very deep. The Light Between Oceans is thought provoking, but might not be a fun film for folks to watch if they have raw grief due to child-related loss. In general, this film seems best suited to adults. Do be aware that it may seem particularly heavy.
What could Tom and Isabel have done differently? What motivated their actions?
Do you view them with judgment, empathy, or both?
What challenges did Hannah face before she knew that her daughter was alive? What challenges did she face once her daughter came to live with her?
What do you know about your child’s story? What parts are missing? How can you research to find some new, positive aspects about their birth family?
At one point, Tom says “We have to do what’s right.” Isabel says, “We have to do what’s right for Lucy.” Tom wants to return Lucy to her mother; Isabel says that she herself is Lucy’s mother. How do you imagine they’re feeling? How would you counsel them if they came to you for advice?
What could help Lucy adjust to her new environment?