Terrence Malick returns to the big screen with To The Wonder. Will this latest effort live up to his previous work or will his experimental style run cold this time?
Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder is a romantic drama about Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a French woman who falls in love with American Neil (Ben Affleck) and the life they embark on together in Oklahoma.
To The Wonder is the sixth film of the famously reclusive and elusive director. Having previously had a 21 year film-making hiatus, Malick’s output in recent years has been relatively prodigious (his second film, Days of Heaven , was released in 1978: his third, The Thin Red Line , came out in 1998). Malick’s numerically meagre body of work, however, has no bearing on his capability of producing beautiful films; from Badlands (1974) to The Tree of Life (2010) Terrence Malick has established himself as unique entity – there aren’t many who compare to Malick’s visual sensibilities or mimic him successfully.
Malick and cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, collaborate for a third time to create a gorgeously rendered piece of cinema. The film is suffused with a breathless sensuality and exudes melancholy in its darker moments. It’s as though Malick approaches the world with a romanticism of sorts, vying to illuminate the beauty present in our world, the joys of love and the seemingly inescapable darkness brought on by doubt and isolation.
The editing is excellent, cementing the poetic nature of the film in a lyrical manner and giving it its dream-like quality.
Whilst not featuring anything as abstract as, say, The Tree of Life’s dinosaur sequence, To The Wonder is the director at his most experimental. The story here is secondary, with form and thematic content given precedence.
As a result of its artistic aspirations, this is a challenging film: it largely eschews dialogue and the small pieces that remain are essentially fragments of information for the audience to chew over and reassemble as they wish.
Even with little to say, the actors perform well, mostly relying on body language and facial expression to portray their characters. Kurylenko’s performance is probably the best of the cast; she portrays Marina with a frivolity that sours into a forlorn listlessness. Affleck, playing the reserved and increasingly distant Neil, is far too restrained, to the point of him coming across as disinterested with his involvement in the film.
Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana is an incongruous element in the film. The character seems superfluous as he rarely crosses paths with the central characters and his scenes distract from an already experimental and somewhat unfocused film.
Another problem is Malick’s ubiquitous voice-over. Whilst there is nothing wrong with its content, when placed in the context of the director’s previous work the narration feels stale. It may be quintessentially ‘Malick’ but it would be nice to see the director move away from previous techniques and push his experimental bent even further. Importantly, with the film being so visual, it can be somewhat exhausting reading subtitles (the narration is predominantly in French and Spanish) whilst also attempting to watch all the lovely images.
To The Wonder is a beautiful film; it’s difficult and challenging, dense and seemingly opaque but it dares you to focus your attention to get the most out of it. However, this is not Malick’s at his best, never quite matching the freshness of his previous work. The voiceover narration is beginning to display signs of weariness and the lack of dialogue does to some extent alienate the characters from the audience.
Hopefully, Malick’s next film will continue his trajectory of experimentation, but also be a chance for the director to deviate from his own formula.
To The Wonder is out now.