Review – To the Wonder (2012)

Director: Terrence Malick

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

To the WonderTerrence Malick is not your usual filmmaker. He was a philosophy student at Harvard who graduated summa cum laude before heading to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He was teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology before deciding to enrol at the American Film Institute. Since then he has had an intriguing 40 year career as a director which has amazingly only resulted in six feature films. While he left academia a long time ago, that philosophical streak still exists in his work, and as he has grown older his films have become increasingly contemplative and esoteric.

His last film, The Tree of Life, divided critics and audiences alike with some declaring it the film of the year while others found it excessively self-indulgent and pretentious. His new picture, To the Wonder is a similar style of film to Tree of Life, though likely a step further away from the mainstream and less well executed.

As a filmmaker, Malick is growing increasingly disinterested in narrative. So while To the Wonder has a narrative of sorts it is not really the primary focus of the film. We meet two outsiders living in Oklahoma. Marina is a Ukranian single mother who has moved to America from Paris after falling in love with an American, Neil. Father Quintana is a Hispanic Catholic priest who moved to the area to minister. Both have been compelled to move their by love, but both now find themself feeling increasingly isolated and distant from that love. The picture contrasts Marina’s relationship difficulties with Quintana’s crisis of faith.

For this exploration of love in its different forms, Malick is more interested in evoking than describing. Instead of getting scenes, we simply glimpse moments. Instead of having passages of dialogue, we capture a sentence here or there. The prominence of the musical score over dialogue means the film can feel almost like a silent movie.

Like The Tree of Life, To the Wonder is a visual and aural experience with an ethereal quality. The cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, who has worked twice before with Malick, is breathtaking. Whether in the streets of Paris, the plains of Oklahoma or the humble homes of Bartlesville, Lubezki and Malick give us beautiful, emotive images. However unlike its predecessor, To the Wonder doesn’t have the substance to support its style. The combination of these stunning images, an expressive score, and a narration of philosophical whisperings in French and Spanish has led more than one critic to liken the film to a high end perfume commercial.

An impressive principal cast including Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem suggests that the chance to work with Malick is obviously a draw card for actors. But don’t come expecting to see movie stars because Malick’s camera doesn’t treat them that way. Case in point is Ben Affleck, who despite being a big name star, constantly finds himself on the periphery of the frame, often with his head cut out of the picture. In the film’s first passages in Paris Affleck hardly says a word. We assume this is because his character doesn’t speak French, but then when the film migrates to America we still don’t hear from him.

To the Wonder has an impassioned spirituality. You can’t help but feel that there is an autobiographical element to Father Quintana’s longing to again experience the presence of Christ in the world around him. Unfortunately though, the film lacks clarity, with the vagueness of its events, characters and themes more likely to leave you scratching your head than deep in philosophical reflection.

Rating – ★★

Review by Duncan McLean

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