To The Wonder

To The Wonder


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

It comes less than two years after his last film, it clocks in at under two hours and at heart it’s a simple love story – is Terrence Malick feeling all right?

For a filmmaker who’s rivalled Kubrick in terms of “unhurried” composition and whose works, when they eventually arrive, are pored over by critics like messages beamed from another planet, To The Wonder seems to represent a relatively straightforward meditation on love, communication and the passage of time.

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But the accent here is on the “relatively” – there’s no mistaking this dreamlike, intensely beautiful and at times almost wordless film for the work of any other director. And to say it’s just a love story is a bit like saying Seven Samurai is just an adventure film.

It opens with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) reminiscing in voiceover about her holiday romance with Neil (Ben Affleck) – a poetic (if occasionally ‘slap her, she’s French’) monologue accompanied by stunning images of Parisian boulevards and the island monastery of Mont St Michel (the ‘Wonder of the West’ that gives the film its title).

Despite their differences, the Parisian free spirit and the stolid American decide to make a go of it back in Neil’s native Oklahoma, accompanied by Marina’s daughter from a previous marriage. But Neil’s job involves inspecting the pollution caused to a small town and the surrounding countryside by a new development. The locals are hostile and the couple have problems settling in.

Neil finds himself drawn to Jane (Rachel McAdams), a childhood friend who now runs a mustang ranch facing closure while Marina finds a friend and fellow exile in Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a Catholic priest struggling to cope with a king-size crisis of faith. As the four struggle to come to terms with the disappointments and compromises of their lives it becomes clear that something, somewhere, will have to give...

This is undoubtedly an ambitious, unconventional film that demands a bit of effort on the audience’s behalf. There’s little in the way of plot and the developments are far from straightforward. Voiceover meditations are largely preferred to dialogue and scenes have a disjointed, standalone feel that impedes the narrative flow. But that’s the price you pay for watching a filmmaker unlike any other. And once again, Malick tackles the big themes full on – love, the nature of creation and creativity, the relationship of Man to God, and of humanity to the environment – and reaches what seems to me a pretty pessimistic conclusion.

But on the way there are a host of breathtaking images. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography gives the Oklahoma prairies and the buffalo and mustang herds on them a quiet, majestic beauty that recalls Malick’s early masterpiece Days Of Heaven and is equally adept at conjuring up the remote otherwoldliness of Mont St Michel.

And, as always, Malick draws top-notch performances from an eclectic cast. Affleck’s turn here, together with Argo, should finally cement his restored reputation. I always knew the caricature of the underachieving himbo during the Bennifer years wasn’t the full story and this proves again what a commanding screen presence he can be. Working from an improvised script with (I suspect) not more than a page or so of dialogue, he makes Neil a believable but not always sympathetic character, by turns engaging, threatening and deeply troubled.

Kurylenko (a long way from her Bond girl turn in Quantum Of Solace) is occasionally something of a cliché as the intellectual Parisienne, wafting and pirouetting across the screen as she delivers another not entirely unpretentious voiceover. But she catches perfectly the increasing isolation and vulnerability of a young woman half a world away from her home, wondering if life is ever going to get any better. McAdams, with the least-developed role of the four, manages to give the put-upon Jane a credible dignity and integrity. And Bardem (completing the Bond veterans’ double act) brings his customary class to the conflicted priest.

Not all of it works and even this comparatively short running time has its longueurs. The overt religiosity may not be too everyone’s liking. And some elements (domestic arguments in brilliantly lit interiors with the sound turned down; gratuitous “beauty of nature” shots that add nothing to the narrative) are so similar to the Tree Of Life, Malick’s last effort, that its hard not to escape the feeling of a director who once delivered masterpieces as unlike each other as they were unlike anything else out there treading water a bit.

It’s still superior to 90 per cent of contemporary US cinema and I still can’t wait for his next work (and I don’t mind if it comes in two years rather than two decades again). But I hope that the words “Terrence Malick film” don’t become a byword for a template as familiar as that of Judd Apatow or Michael Bay.

Reviewed on: 01 Mar 2013
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A young couple – one French, one American – try to keep their relationship alive across two continents.
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Director: Terrence Malick

Writer: Terrence Malick

Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem

Year: 2012

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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The Tree Of Life