26 February 2013

Review: To the Wonder

(Dir: Terrence Malick, 2012)

A new Terrence Malick film is something to get excited about. Regardless of your thoughts on him as a storyteller he is one of the most impressive visual directors out there. Having released his first film in 1973 (Badlands), To the Wonder is only his sixth film, which hardly marks him out as prolific, but that it follows a mere two years behind The Tree of Life is something of a surprise. The Tree of Life proved to be a highly divisive, over-bearing masterwork. Its graceful visual beauty is beyond compare, embellished by a stunningly beautiful score. On the surface, as a film about childhood, the love for a mother and growing up with an overbearing father, it's fascinating. But the overtly religious message at its core felt stifling. The audacity of including a twenty minute interlude showing the big bang and the birth of life was a stroke of genius and pure visual poetry. Hence I was keen to see what Malick would offer us next.

To the Wonder takes its cue from The Tree of Life, but feels a little more reigned in. It's about a trans-Atlantic relationship between an American man (Ben Affleck) and a French woman (Olga Kurylenko) starting in Paris and moving overseas (we only find out their names in the end credits, which somewhat diminishes the intriguing facelessness of them, hence I won't use them here). When we meet them they're already together in the early throes of dizzying love, and we follow the couple as she and her daughter move to the US to be with him. We experience the joy, destruction and everything in between that comes from love.

It's a story told through short snippets of life; a look, a touch, a few whispered words, a distance, a presence of mood. There is no structured story in the traditional sense, rather the through-narrative shows a relationship in the form of fleeting moments. Similarly there are no proper conversations per se and dialogue is kept to a minimum. What we do get is a steady stream of voiceover from the characters which leaves a mixed feeling. In one sense it provides a different insight into their thoughts and desires, but on the other it veers too frequently into awkward overly religious nonsense. Due to Kurylenko's character a good proportion of this voiceover is in French (maybe even over half), but the subtitles are so small I occasionally found myself forgetting to read them, yet I don't think this had much of a diminishing impact, such is the over-bearing nature of some of some of the spiritualism Malick tries to convey to his audience.

The approach of To the Wonder leads to us perceiving the characters in a slightly different way. Affleck plays the male character in such a closed manner that emotions are mostly kepy hidden deep down making it hard to truly understand him and what he wants. His character has very little personality, which is exemplified by realising his home is entirely impersonal, even when it's full of life. Is he just a cypher for the "average man"? Conversely Kurylenko's woman is full of personality, constantly craving love and attention with a habit of acting like a carefree child. She inhabits the role well but I couldn't help but find the character somewhat frustrating. In many ways it's difficult to see why they're even together, but that's what makes up the journey of life and love I guess. 

Rachel McAdams gets a smaller albeit more interesting role in the film, with a much more likeable character whom I really wanted to see a lot more of. Then there's Javier Bardem's priest, whose presence seems incongruous beyond giving us a physical representation of religion. The focus keeps occasionally shifting to him but to the detriment of the core story, as his part in the bigger picture is left underdeveloped and unnecessary. One can only presume this is due to Malick's brutal editing, with Bardem's character possibly playing a bigger role in an element of the film that got excised?

To the Wonder looks and sounds fantastic, with ethereal and dramatic orchestral pieces accompanying another array of beautiful images; be it Paris in spring, an abbey on a French coastal island or the sunny plains of Oklahoma, it always looks fantastic. Yet again constructing a film via short fleeting moments rather than actual scenes works and fits the subject of the film, because usually what matters most in life and love are the little moments and miniscule details. This style really makes us feel. It is an absorbing film and far more impactful than the blandly average stories about love that regularly fill up our cinemas. There are some distracting niggles and it may not match the grandiose majesty of The Tree of Life, but To the Wonder is another fascinating and beautiful film from the undeniably creative Malick.

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