“The Light Between Oceans”

September 2, 2016

Anna Wyckoff

The film The Light Between Oceans, set in rural Australia, follows Tom and Isabel (Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander) as their idyllic marriage is wounded by two miscarriages. When a mysterious baby washes ashore in a rowboat, they decide to take her in as their own child. As the girl grows up, her true mother (Rachel Weisz) materializes, and the pair is faced with the moral implications of their decision. Costume Designer Erin Benach clothes the couple in appealing, ethereal garments. The choice potently underscores one of the main themes of the film: innocence verses guilt.

Benach explains her approach, “It takes place just after the war, and the waists of dresses and skirts have not dropped yet. Our characters were living alone on an island, in harsh conditions, working hard tilling the land. There are no rules that they had to abide by in their dress, so we created a world where their clothes would withstand the sort of physical work they would do. It’s sort of almost like a casual workmen’s world.” Only when the couple travels into town and is seen against city dwellers does the audience recognize visually that they are trapped in the past.

Because of the frailty of most existing pieces from this time period, Benach built a majority of the costumes. She sourced fabrics in Los Angeles, London, and New Zealand. For Isabel, Benach fostered a feeling of vulnerability by keeping her in a limited palette of creams. She used masculine pieces with a slouchy feel against rough raw silks. To add a feeling of livability, she punctuated all of Isabel’s costumes with wool leggings and well-worn leather boots. “We wanted the same for Tom,” says Benach, “There are a lot of smart period looks we could have used, and instead I had a wool sweater made for him, purposefully keeping it soft and sort of friendly.” The end result of Benach’s strategy is the costumes have a dreamy familiarity and accessibility that beguiles the audience to sympathize with the couple, despite their flaws, further intensifying the poignancy of the film.

Having already worked twice with director Derek Cianfrance, Benach says she enjoys their collaboration. “I have such a shorthand with him. There is an utter joy of being able to go into work in the morning and say, ‘How can I make this look even better?’ Then sitting down and being able to actually sketch something that is better, then have it made in two days better than it was the first time around. This is literally what I think every one of us would ever hope for. For me, that is the pure part of creativity—of what we do as Costume Designers: to make something the best, the most believable, and the most intrinsic to the character. I’m just so grateful that I was given the opportunity to be able to do that with this film.”

The Light Between Oceans opens today.

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