VENICE: Terrence Malick was never going to have an easy time trying to follow-up on his Tree of Life success but To The Wonder rather underwhelms in the attempt. While Tree of Life had a strong focus and profound storyline this film seems to never manage to get to grips with its theme.
Mont Saint-Michel is an island in France once known as “The Wonder of the West” and we see Marina played by Olga Kurylenko and Neil played by Ben Affleck exploring the tidal island caught up in their love for each other accompanied by Wagner. The Wonder in Malick’s film is obviously the wonder of love and Malick does manage to capture this rapturous feeling in many of the scenes which is no small accomplishment.
Neil and Marina move with Marina’s 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana played by Tatiana Chiline, to Oklahoma where Neil takes up a job as a water and ground contamination detection specialist.
The flat, tree-less Oklahoma is starkly contracted visually with earlier scenes of the romantic Mont Saint-Michel, where the couple’s love seems not to be able to survive being removed from its romantic backdrop. Marina who is used to life in Paris quickly finds life in Oklahoma boring and soulless. This might be off-set by some lively interest in her husband but it seems that Affleck’s character is so flat, unemotional and incommunicative that he is hardly there at all leaving Marina in an emotional wasteland. It also leaves the viewer wondering what she saw in Neil in the first place.
We then encounter Father Quintana played by Javier Bardem, a priest who feels that he has lost in passion for his vocation. Life in Oklahoma seems to have a mind-numbing impact on people according to Malick and shortly after this Marina returns to Paris with her daughter.
The opens the door for Neil to carry on a poetic love affair with Jane played by Rachel McAdams a former childhood love and local rancher. The two lovers once again enter a world of wonder with scenes of beauty and nature that they move through as the formerly dull Oklahoma because alive for them to a background of classical music. There is very little dialogue in these scenes although they are beautifully lenses by Malick’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. But the affair ends with Jane accusing Neil of turning their love into nothingness. At this point Marina returns from Paris although it is difficult to understand why.
The women in Malick’s film spend a lot of time drifting around to music and looking beautiful while Neil doesn’t seem to have a lot to do. One is reminded of traditional classical ballets where the women spin and float in diaphanous costumes while the man stays in the background lifting and supporting them without having much of a role himself.
For Malick fans this film will still probably have its champions but generally other than the scenes that do actually capture a sense of the beauty and the wonder of those first romantic moments of love there does not seem to be enough substance or story here.
Director: Terrence Malick
DoP: Emmanuel Lubezki
Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem