out of Five
Running time: 112
To The Wonder is beautifully shot and stylishly edited but the script is frequently infuriating, Affleck is badly miscast and the story fails to engage on an emotional level, with Malick's directorial flourishes coming dangerously close to self-parody.
What's it all about?
Written and directed by Terrence Malick (time between films: 5 years, 20 years, 7 years, 6 years, 1 year, so by his standards he's on a productive streak), To The Wonder stars Ben Affleck as Neil, an American construction engineer who persuades French-speaking European Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and her young daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to move to Oklahoma with him after a whirlwind romance. However, Neil seems reluctant to marry Marina so she returns to Europe when her visa runs out, while Tatiana grows tired of America and decides to return to France to live with her father.
Neil subsequently begins an affair with childhood friend Jane (Rachel McAdams), only for Marina to return. Meanwhile, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) offers counsel to Marina and struggles with his own crisis of faith.
Stylistically, To The Wonder is extremely similar to Tree of Life, in that it mostly unfolds in brief, fluid snapshots with minimal dialogue and lots of earthy imagery; the key difference is that the story, such as it is, unfolds more or less chronologically and is much more simplistic (there's no messing about with dinosaurs or floating women here, even though both of those things would have livened this up a treat). It's also beautifully shot, courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki's gorgeous cinematography and there are a handful of stunning sequences, such as a shot of the beach seeming to bounce beneath Neil and Marina's feet (later echoed in Oklahoma).
Kurylenko is mesmerising as Marina and Malick's camera clearly loves her as it trails in her wake, with her performance largely consisting of running about, dancing, bouncing or jumping, even when she's supposed to be miserable. By contrast, Affleck is somewhat miscast; he is, admittedly, playing a man of few words, but he just comes across as blank-faced and emotionless rather than a man torn between two of the world's most beautiful women. Similarly, despite her equal billing, McAdams is only in the film for around 20 minutes, so never really registers as a character.
Malick's constant use of wispy voiceover (Neil doesn't get one; everyone else does) is extremely frustrating, especially given the relative lack of dialogue elsewhere in the film. On top of that, the set-up constantly feels false (Neil and Marina don't seem to believe in furniture, for example), while there's so little substance to the story that Malick's directorial flourishes ultimately begin to feel like self-parody – there is way too much in the way of wheat-stroking, skulking in artfully-framed doorways and spraying each other with water, for example.
To The Wonder is something of a disappointment, thanks to a frustratingly weak script that makes it difficult to emotionally connect with the film.