The story follows Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck), who are enjoying a love affair in Europe. After vising Mont Saint-Michel in France (the so-called “Wonder” mentioned in the film’s title), he asks her to come back with him to the United States with the eventual hope of getting married. They bring Marina’s 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) with them, and it becomes very obvious that things are not going to be as easy as they should be.
Last year, I watched my first Terrence Malick film – The Tree of Life. While it was an aggravating experience to say the least, I maintain to this day how spellbinding and wondrous the film is. Knowing his track record and the words of his many admirers, I went into To the Wonder imagining I would get more of the same.
Visually, the film is just as magical as its predecessor from beginning until the very end. Every image in the film is almost painting-like in its masterful quality. Malick employs a vast plethora of rich colour schemes to drop his characters into, and captures every single one of them in eye-popping fashion. It oozes of style, and is awe striking in its beauty.
Whether we are indoors in Oklahoma, running around the many sights of France, or spinning through fields of wheat – everything is conveyed vividly and gorgeously. Coupled together with the astounding cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, To the Wonder instantly becomes a visual spectacle for the ages. It rivals Tree of Life for how amazing the look and feel of the picture is, and even manages to look more practically and traditionally made.
Kurylenko, despite not having as extensive or impressive a resume as the other leads, is the clear standout performer here. She is deeply romantic when she needs to be, and just as downright devastating. While we cut away from her briefly in the second act, the rest of the film is spent following her almost exclusively.
Kurylenko gives us a reason to hang on her every word and action, and even manages to breathe life into a very small backstory for her character. Her emotions get tested throughout, and despite the shifting eye of the camera, she manages to give an admirable performance. She even manages to make some of the love poetry she narrates sound infinitely better than the drivel it actually is.
But that is where the praise for To the Wonder ends, for even the biggest of Malick fans may be off-put by what is essentially, an experimental love story.
Compared to his other five films, To the Wonder is the fastest turnaround between projects that Malick has ever done. This is likely because there is so little actually going on in the film that it somehow afforded him the time and arena to experiment with ideas regarding love, lust and romance. Unfortunately though, we only get the basics of these elements and how they relate to the characters.
We never really get any real reason as to why or how. Worse yet, the film gives us no point to Kurylenko’s bizarre poetic narration, as it seems to have no real consequence to what is happening on screen. Much like the story, it simply exists for Malick to have a reason to experiment. The actual content of the film seems to be inconsequential as long as the visual esthetic remains unaffected.
While he was not exactly known for being a great actor for the majority of his career, Affleck may have single handedly delivered his worst performance to date here – and not on purpose. His character is the literal incarnation of the strong, silent type, as he says barely anything throughout the film’s near two hour runtime. He simply stands and reacts to what is going on around him, often looking baffled and dumbfounded.
The narration suggests he is a bit of an enigma, but that is just about the only thing we have to go on for character description (besides being a near mute). I understand that the actors were working with very little script wise, but Affleck is not the most subtle of performers, so expecting him to look anything but awkward and out-of-place is absurd.
Malick must have clued into this at some point, as he frequently obscures our view of Affleck, sometimes just showing his torso, his mouth or the back of his head as people “converse” with him. While it helps with the visuals, it does absolutely nothing for Affleck’s performance. It just makes things worse.
Javier Bardem and Rachel McAdams fare slightly better, but not by much.
Bardem’s performance as a displaced priest is sombre, much the same as Sean Penn was in The Tree of Life. He hints that there is more to his character, but he is never given the opportunity to explore it. As it stands, when he first appears and every time after, it feels like he was plopped in as an afterthought to further the film’s allusions and nods towards religion.
His character serves no other real point, other than to give us a break from Affleck and Kurylenko’s whirlwind romance. His work here is a total waste, and it makes me wonder why Malick thought his performance was necessary, but scenes featuring Michael Sheen, Barry Pepper, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet and Jessica Chastain were cut out entirely.
McAdams on the other hand, does serve a point – as the other woman in Neil’s life. Her ever so brief appearance is one of the few bright spots in the film, and is one of the few character building elements for Affleck’s character. McAdams’ Jane is a strong woman, taking the reins of the family ranch after hard times have befallen them. We are never afforded a complete grasp of her character, but she makes the small role memorable and enjoyable. You feel for this character, much like you feel for Marina, and you want to see her succeed. But of course, much like everyone else, McAdams’ role is held back and stunted, and yet again, is a waste of talent.
I would be hard-set not to point out how I could not take my eyes off To the Wonder. As a visual spectacle, it delivers brilliantly in every instance. Great care was taken to make the film look as wonderful as it does, and it shows. But the visuals are the only thing that really holds the film together, as the story and acting are an almost inconsequential means to an end for Malick.
His mediations and allusions to love and romance are not nearly as well explored as life and death in The Tree of Life, and this film is all the weaker for it. There is no rhyme or reason for anything in To The Wonder, things just seem to exist.