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Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: To the Wonder (2013)

* *

Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Olga Kurylenko,Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams

Typical of Terrence Malick's work, To the Wonder is an absolutely beautiful film to look at. Also typical of Malick, it's a narratively elusive piece, set firmly in its characters' interior lives. Atypically, at least for me (Malick is an acquired taste), it's a film that doesn't ever really come together, one that it at once intimate and small in scale, and yet far too broad, a ponderous, shapeless story of failed loves and crises of faith. The visuals alone almost make the film worth watching, but To the Wonder doesn't really leave you with enough to hold onto for its impact to be anything but superficial.

To the Wonder is about a man and a woman, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) who meet and fall in love in Paris. As his time in France is coming to a close, Neil invites Marina and her young daughter, Tatiana, to join him in the States and they come with him to his home in Oklahoma. Although the three of them are happy together for a time, the romance between Neil and Marina begins to cool, and a homesick Tatiana begins to act out. When Marina's visa expires, she and Tatiana return to Paris and the relationship between her and Neil is seemingly over. In Marina's absence, Neil reunites with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a childhood friend just coming off a divorce. Neil and Jane seem to fall in love but just as Marina, unable to find a job in Paris and having sent Tatiana to live with her father, is returning to Oklahoma, the relationship between Neil and Jane comes to a close and Neil and Marina reunite and marry.

If anything, Neil's ardour for Marina wanes even more quickly the second time around, leaving Marina feeling isolated and alone, particularly since her daughter is now an ocean away. She turns briefly to another man, which derails the relationship for a second time. Separately, and during different phases of their relationship, both Marina and Neil turn to Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) for advice, though he himself is experiencing a crisis of faith. In the film's particularly opaque final act, Quintana rediscovers his purpose by tending to the poor and the infirm, and Neil and Marina drift apart for good, with Marina returning to Europe, and Neil staying on in Oklahoma, possibly having started a family with someone else.

To the Wonder feels like an intensely personal film, a rumination on the depths and the limits of love in which every corner is lit by regret. Though he is arguably the central character by virtue of the fact this his relationships with Marina then Jane then Marina again drive the story, Neil is a largely peripheral figure, one whose silences and refusal to fully commit prove insurmountable to Marina and Jane. The two women spend the film processing and dissecting their feelings, while Neil remains mostly silent, unreadable to them, perhaps by design. Both fall in love with him, but come to resent how withholding he is and are tormented by how easily the intensity of his feelings dissipates, leaving them with nothing to hold onto. And yet, for a film that is so seemingly invested in what its characters are thinking and feeling, To the Wonder is ultimately devoid of characters. Malick is often accused of dealing in symbols instead of actual characters, and that's never been more true than it is here, where Neil, Marina, Jane and Quintana register merely as ideas and not as people.

Photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, To the Wonder is filled with images of startling beauty but not much to hang them on. There's something unrealized about the film, which feels less like a story and more like a half-remembered dream, too hazy in many respects, and sometimes maddeningly vague. It has moments of greatness, but never quite gels.

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