The 73rd Venice International Film Festival continued to amp up the glamour today as Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander docked on the Lido in support of Derek Cianfrance’s competition title The Light Between Oceans. Both actors are vets of the event: He won a Volpi Cup for Shame in 2011, and last year The Danish Girl world premiered here before going on to scoop Vikander the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

The sweeping and tragic Light Between Oceans, based on the book by ML Stedman, is garnering strong notices for each half of the real-life couple. They and Cianfrance spoke this afternoon about the characters’ moral dilemma and motivations, the period story’s relevance to today and working with one another for the first time.

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DreamWorks
Fassbender plays Tom, a WWI veteran who lives with his new wife, Isabel (Vikander), in idyllic isolation on an Australian island. Devastated after suffering a second miscarriage, Isabel takes it as a sign when an infant washes ashore in a rowboat. The other passenger is the baby’s deceased father. Isabel convinces Tom not to report the boat or its contents and despite his initial conflict, they raise the child as their own. Rachel Weisz is the girl’s biological mother whom Tom discovers years later grieving graveside in the mainland cemetery. The plot moves swiftly from there, building to a crescendo of tragic consequences. Disney releases domestically tomorrow with international rollout beginning next week.

Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines helmer Cianfrance told press today his penchant for telling “human family stories about secrets inside homes” made him fall for The Light Between Oceans which he calls “a battle between truth and love… Characters in my films usually choose with their emotions and it’s dangerous. They’re not good or bad, but there are consequences to emotional decisions.”

Vikander said, “When I read it the fist time, I thought ‘What am I supposed to feel?’ and I love that it’s about real people and life and the longing for love and family and wanting to have a future and about loss.” But, she added, it’s “good people making sometimes not the best decisions. It’s the wanting to do good, but the realization of failing. That’s what got to me.”

Fassbender has a theory about the decisions that Tom and Isabel make. “The problem is that their isolation becomes something that really puts them in a position where their relationship starts to decay. Isabel should have been able to talk to a neighbor (about the miscarriages) and so should Tom. They’re not in the right state mentally.”

Asked to put a label on the film, Fassbender wondered, “Is it a love story? There are those elements; it’s a story of life.” The major takeaway for him is “forgiveness.” Weisz’s Hannah recounts how her late husband, the German war vet Franz, dealt with the post-war shaming by others through forgiveness. “You only have to forgive once,” he says in a flashback. Fassbender noted, “You see it today with the immigration scenario. What happens to Franz is something that we can relate to today. We see so many immigrants die at sea today and how people react to new people coming into a country. There’s so much prejudice. But what I take away positively from the film is this whole element of forgiveness.”

Turning more lightly towards working together for the first time, Vikander said, “I was up for the game, but very nervous. One of the first things Derek said to me was ‘I expect my actors to fail and I expect them to surprise me.’ Michael’s support for me in those scenes was a big help.”

Fassbender responded that he was “Kind of scared. When Alicia came, she was so fierce and hungry. It’s always a great thing to see in an actor that’s getting an opportunity — they haven’t been well-known yet, but in the industry people are talking about them. It’s always great to see that hunger and the realization that you’re being given an opportunity and grab it with both hands. When new actors come on the scene you have to up your game. I really had to get my sh*t together and just be there and be as present as she was.”