To The Wonder, the latest cinematic endeavour from the great Terrence Malick (writer/director of Badlands, The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life), is a serene and poetic romantic drama, entwined with stories of the deconstruction and repair of faith. It is a carefully considered and beautifully photographed film that displays all of Malick’s gifts as a visual storyteller. He focuses directly on the search for unique spiritual contentment and the emotional aspects of both falling in love and experiencing the diminishment of that splendour.
Malick’s style is a difficult one to absorb and embrace, and in no way is this film going to please everyone, particularly viewers starting out with To The Wonder. Some will be running for the exit within minutes while others will be captivated by the graceful flow of striking visuals, the natural screen existence of the actors portraying these characters and the moments of immense beauty that accompany the provocative emotional developments. A shorter, more linear, and less ambitious work than The Tree of Life, this closer focus in some ways makes this film more accessible, but as the scope is reduced, ultimately offers a little less for the audience to connect with.
Neil (Ben Affleck) is an American traveling in Europe when he meets and falls in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Ukrainian divorcee living in Paris. We witness their visit to the picturesque Mont St. Michael, an island abbey off the coast of Normandy, where they relish in the magic of newfound romance. Neil makes a commitment to Marina, inviting her and her daughter, Tatiana, to live in Oklahoma. Neil takes a job as an environmental inspector and Marina settles into her new life, but after some time their passion begins to cool.
With her daughter homesick, when Marina’s visa expires she decides on their return to France. In the interim period – Marina will eventually return and marry Neil – he reconnects with childhood friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Again, being unable to commit, this soon falls apart. Neil and Marina’s marriage suffers from tumultuous highs and lows, with both clearly at odds with their desires and being unable to find the spiritual unity. The story ends quite ambiguously, but I understood that the courtship never again recaptured the heights of their visit to their personal wonder, Mont St. Michael.
A parallel story unfolds featuring a Catholic Priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), undergoing a crisis of faith. He administers guidance to the locals and prisoners, but it is clear he is deprived of happiness. Marina first connects with him, finding solace from her struggles, while Neil also seeks counseling, learning to accept his responsibility for the souring of the relationship and finally asking for forgiveness.
Personally, as a fan of Malick’s films, I was attentive for the entire duration. There is beauty in every frame, no matter the questionable relevance, and there is just something fascinating about the possibilities of what is to come next. As this is unconventional storytelling, conveying a character’s emotions through unusual measures we don’t feel like we are absorbing a story. As we are witnessing fragments of the character’s existence on screen the story moulds from this. Kurylenko’s character expresses her joy by dancing, running around and tenderly embracing Neil, while her thoughts and feelings are often conveyed through close-ups of her face, emotive gestures or the sparse accompanying voice-over. Having Bardem simply uneasily drifting through his local neighbourhood adequately expresses his troubles. We know that we are watching Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams on screen together, but their portrayals are so natural that it doesn’t seem like they are acting at all. Rather, they exist. It is a strange feeling because it clearly isn’t the actor or actress we recognize, but an elusive character we want to understand.
There was notable publicity about the actors whose footage was removed from the final cut. I understand that it is Malick’s usual method to chisel out this story in the editing room from a large volume of material. Amongst them were Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz and Michael Sheen. I am curious to see where they fit in.
The assembly of these images to form a cinematic tapestry and formulate a story in rejection of conventional narrative storytelling is Malick’s gift as a filmmaker. It may be his least successful use of this style to date – The Tree of Life and The New World are other examples, and I feel like they utilize the images better in strict relevance to their themes. Here, some shots seemed recycled from The Tree of Life, while others felt somewhat indulgent and removed from the modern-set story and actions we assess as typical of such characters. But, with the genius of DP Emmanuel Lubezki, the winning collaboration on The Tree of Life, every vibrant shot is rich with light and life. There is a quiet serenity to this film and it challenges a viewer to reflect on their own decisions, and in particular a point when one has placed their faith in something – whether a spiritual being, or a companion – and felt disappointed or let down. I felt an emotional connection to this narrative, and certainly with Kurylenko’s character and her tragic story, and I applaud Malick for ensuring this quiet and contemplative experience has continued to linger in my heart.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.