Review: To the Wonder
PLOT: Neil and Marina have found a deeply emotional and all-consuming love together. The two meet in Europe and their relationship quickly becomes serious, so much so that he asks her and her daughter from an earlier marriage to come and live with him back in the states. As they grow more accustomed to each other, the reality of being involved in a relationship comes crashing down upon their dreamy ideas of what romance and love should be.
In the latest feature from Terrence Malick entitled TO THE WONDER, we see two lovers swept up in a passionate romance. Ben Affleck as Neil and Olga Kurylenko as Marina embrace each other as well as their Mont St. Michel surroundings, the island off the coast of Normandy. One especially gorgeous visual finds the two on a seemingly endless beach as the tide begins to fill in the cracks and crevices beneath them. This is a lush and provocative setting that could easily be mistaken for a perfume commercial or a French art house film. In fact, maybe this is the famed directors take on Cinema of France.
For a director famous for taking several years between projects, TO THE WONDER arrives less than two years after the critically acclaimed THE TREE OF LIFE. In a sense, the two films are extremely compatible as they both explore the uncharted territory of relationships and the intricate dealings which complicate them. Both are moody and atmospheric examinations yet WONDERs focus is tighter on the films four main characters as opposed to TREEs connection to the beginnings of time. If you want to see dinosaurs this time around, you will have to catch JURASSIC PARK 3D in another theatre.
As intimate and passionate as the romance between Marina and Neil is, there is a distance that is felt throughout the film. This could very well be attributed to the voiceover work which was more effectively used in TREE OF LIFE where Kurylenkos Marina speaks about love as an all-consuming emotion. Malicks brilliant visual style is on display certainly as the story plays on. We learn that Marina is a divorcee raising a 10-year-old daughter named Tatiana. Yet at times it is the mother that seems to be in need of attention and Neil is able to give that to her. Things do change for the couple when he invites Marina and her daughter to come and live with him in his native Oklahoma. While Marina embraces this brave new world, the reality and pain of a real relationship grows stronger within this circle.
Meanwhile the film introduces us to a Catholic priest named Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) who is going through his own crisis this one is of his faith. And when Neil and Marinas affair begins to cool, he reconnects with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a woman from his past that feels a bit unnecessary to this story. It may sound a bit like a cinematic soap opera but WONDER is far less conventional than anything like that. The screenplay features very little dialogue, in fact, considering he is one of the films leads Affleck probably has less than five lines. The voice that we hear is mostly given to Kurylenko and Bardem who grapple with their own disillusionment about love and the constant reminder that life can be a difficult burden.
I loved TREE OF LIFE. Jessica Chastain made for a fascinating character that persevered through a challenging relationship with her husband played by Brad Pitt. Sadly, TO THE WONDER never really achieves the emotional punch that TREE was able to convey. Kurylenkos Marina is a frustratingly self-absorbed character that is very difficult to sympathize with. Afflecks Neil doesnt fare much better. This is a relationship that is over-the-top in its romantic entanglements and it is hard to really see why the two would even bother sticking it out. It also doesnt help that Marinas narration is sometimes irritatingly passionate yet at the same time, so very empty. Even Bardem, who crosses paths with Marina, feels far too distant to really connect with. There are several moments that border on mesmerizing yet the Hallmark sentiments oftentimes get in the way.
This is not to say that TO THE WONDER doesnt inspire some seriously beautiful moments. Malick explores both the majestic beauty of France as well as the more rustic nature of Oklahoma with equal vigor. Once again working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (THE NEW WORLD, THE TREE OF LIFE), the filmmaker brings such beauty to every single moment that you sometimes forget the frustratingly cold and dissipate relations connecting each of the films leads. One thing is for sure however, if you are not a fan of Malicks style, you will find WONDER to be an aggravating bore.
The distance that TO THE WONDER created for me as a viewer didnt take away from Kurylenkos fantastic performance. As maddening as Marina is, the actress is terrific in the role. She brings an emotional fierceness to her whether she is consumed by happiness and love or devastated by its pain and suffering. If only I had felt a little more compassion for her, yet in no way is this due to her as an actress. She is a childlike being that perhaps will become a little more sympathetic upon repeat viewings. Yes, TO THE WONDER is a film that I will most assuredly return to, whether or not it will be a happy reunion is as unpredictable as Marinas mental state. This is not one of Malick's best works clearly, yet the beauty and skill it does offer may be worth revisiting.
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