Monday, 1 July 2013


Roadshow Films

Now Showing Sydney/Melbourne in limited release

After waiting some seven years for his previous film, 2011's The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's follow-up arrives almost prematurely. Having made only 5 films over a 38-year period, Malick's To The Wonder seems positively rushed; premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in 2012 and arriving in Australian cinemas (well, a handful of them) just two years after the Palme d'Or winning The Tree of Life.

And while not meaning to look a gift horse in the mouth, perhaps Malick is a director who is best served by taking his time. For while beautiful to look at (kudos to cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki), this meditation on the elusive nature of love, its ebbs and flows, and the unpredictability of the heart feels both incomplete and inconsequential.

Non-fans of Malick's previous film (and there were many) will find little (other than a shorter running time) to dissuade them of their frustrations and doubts this time around. And even those who were fans (myself included) of his epic study of love, life and the universe in The Tree of Life will have their patience sorely tested. For while we have the same stylistic principles -- stunning imagery of the natural and man-made world, swelling classical music, and whispered dialogue -- there's very little for one to actually grasp.

Trading the epic for the intimate, To The Wonder is, at its most basic, a love triangle: Neil (Ben Affleck) meets and falls in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) whilst in Paris, and invites her and her young daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to come live with him in Oklahoma. And they do, but the romantic fervour between the two soon wanes, and the young girl longs for Paris and her friends.

When Marina decides she and Tatiana will leave when her Visa expires, Neil rekindles a relationship with a high school flame, Jane (Rachel McAdams), but this ends just as abruptly as it began when Marina decides she cannot live without him, and returns from Paris to live with Neil.

All three actors are under-served by Malick, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the rumours that the director didn't use a script but merely discussed the idea of a scene with the actors before shooting proved to be true. Affleck is the worst served, required to do little more than look pensive and masculine as the women in his life twirl and twirl (there's a lot of twirling in this film!) around him. (Here's hoping the recent Oscar-winner for Argo used his time on set as a directorial masterclass, in both what to do and what not to do when making a film.)

Kurylenko, on the other hand, receives the lion's share of screen time and Lubezki's camera loves her. And she is lovely. I've never noticed before just how beautiful this Ukranian-born actress (from Quantum of Solace (2008) and this year's Oblivion) is. But beauty for beauty's sake does not a great film make.

The film also features Javier Bardem, playing a local priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who can no longer feel God's love. He still administers to his faithful but even they can sense his discontent; one parishioner tells him he needs some excitement, another prays for him to find joy. I'm not sure if this character and storyline were an after thought or taken from another of Malick's story ideas, but it feels disconnected from the main story, especially as Father Quintana has little interaction with Marina and Neil.

That Malick is currently in post-production on not one but three features (two scheduled to debut later this year, the other in 2014) does not bode well, certainly not if To The Wonder is an indication of the director working at maximum capacity. Malick will turn 70 this year, and one can't help but wonder if the man has suddenly been made aware of his mortality; realising that he has so much more to say and possibly not all that much time (heaven forbid) left to say it?

Cinema needs filmmakers such as Malick, a visual poet and philosopher who dares to dream big and feel deeply. And while we all lament that we have to wait years between films, I prefer the wait to the alternative: a beautiful though less substantial offering.

To The Wonder isn't without merit, and worth seeing on the big screen if only for Lubezki's imagery, but it's minor Malick (and yes, I can appreciate the irony in that near oxymoronic statement). Then again, given the current state of filmmaking and distribution, that we get any new Malick film at all is something to wonder at, even if the film isn't some kind of wonderful.

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