To the Wonder

Posted on: 8th March 2013  |

Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem
UK Release date: 22 February 2013
Certificate: 12A (112 mins)

The films of recluse American director Terrence Malick were once few and far between. There was a five year gap between his first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven (still his best). Then we had a twenty year wait before The Thin Red Line in 1998, and another seven before The New World. Since 2011 however, Malick has increased his work rate dramatically, with The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and (so IMDb tells me) another feature that has already been shot and is currently in post-production.

While fans of Malick’s singular oeuvre will be delighted to see more of his projects getting the green light, there must now be concerns that the faster work rate is affecting their quality, because even for fans, To the Wonder is problematic.

Ben Affleck plays Neil (though we don’t discover his name until the end credits), an American in Paris who falls in love with Frenchwoman Marina (Olga Kurylenko.) They visit Mont-St-Michel in Normandy, pose photogenically amid the medieval architecture and jump around amusingly on the bulging elastic sand-flats surrounding the rocky island. Neil then takes Marina and her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana back to the States to set up home in flat, rural Oklahoma. He gets a job as some sort of environmental engineer, while mother and daughter struggle with their English and the tricky task of forging friendships with the locals. To this end, Mariana doesn’t exactly help herself by flouncing and pirouetting round the aisles in Wal-Mart as though she’s starring in a perfume commercial.

It is fairly obvious that the relationship is doomed from the start, as neither Neil nor Marina makes any attempt to relax and settle into their love-nest. It remains a bare empty house, with no books, groceries or lived-in clutter. Young Tatiana soon wants to return to Paris. Who can blame her?

Marina visits the local priest, Fr. Quintana (Javier Bardem), a Spanish-speaking Latino who might have empathised with a fellow exile if he didn’t have problems of his own; the handsome but brooding priest is struggling with his vocation. Mariana and Tatiana head back to Paris while Neil looks up an old flame (Rachel McAdams), a hardworking rancher in suspiciously clean designer jeans. Their short-lived and enigmatic fling doesn’t work out and Mariana, lonely and unhappy in Paris, returns without her daughter. The girl has been parked with her French father.

What little sympathy I had for the tiresome Mariana, already strained by all the adolescent flouncing, largely evaporated at this point.

These two stories – the on-off love triangle and the priest’s – are told almost entirely through images, often in very short scenes with hand-held cameras and quick cutting. There is very little audible dialogue in the film at all, particularly from Affleck. Instead, characters’ thoughts are heard through non-stop voiceovers that strain too hard to be poetic. For a sample, here’s how the film opens:

Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt. Into the eternal night. A spark. You got me out of the darkness. You gathered me up from earth. You've brought me back to life.

Those words are spoken by Marina, who often adds to the general obscurity by referring to herself in the third person. As for Affleck’s central character, who offers us neither audible dialogue nor interior monologue, he is rendered largely unreadable.

As in The Tree of Life, Malick tacks a Big Theme onto his vague, domestic drama. In the earlier film, the theme was The-Dawn-Of-Time-And-Life-On-Earth. This time, the director has added a more specifically Christian Big Theme to all the blissed-out mysticism and pantheistic nature imagery. Fr. Quintana’s internal monologue reveals that he is losing his faith. He repeatedly asks God to reveal Himself. The problem with suddenly jumping inside the priest’s head and sharing these disembodied thoughts is that Quintana seems to have no life in the film outside of his agony. He exists without back story or context.

The only moving sequence in this rambling but visually rich film occurs towards the end when the priest rediscovers his faith and vocation in the simple act of ministering to broken humanity – to addicts and prisoners, the poor and the senile elderly. During this sequence, the priest quotes from St Patrick’s Breastplate (‘Christ on my right, Christ on my left’) while an instrumental section from Gorecki’s ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ plays on the soundtrack. I was reminded of the words of Christ before the beginning of his Passion: ‘In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40) The broken humanity – played by what appear to be real addicts and alcoholics – contrasts jarringly with the film’s Hollywood-handsome central characters.

As it turns out, this sequence is the film’s emotional climax but, problematically, Malick makes little attempt to relate it to the rest of the film, to the on-off story of the lovers. Is the director contrasting fickle, romantic love with divine love? Is he challenging us to find an image of Christ in Neil, Mariana and the blonde rancher in designer jeans? Who knows? One is left with the impression that the film’s vague plot might as well have been chosen at random. I couldn’t help feeling that Malick would have made a braver and better film if he’d explored the lives of the priest and his flock rather than the superficial world of the photogenic lovers.

I have read online that the work of several top actors, including Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper, Jessica Chastain and Michael Sheen, was cut from the film in post-production and ended up on the cutting room floor. The end credits name five – yes five – film editors. This, then, is a butchered film, and it shows.

Peter Bridgman

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