Film Review | To the Wonder

Reclusive and suddenly prolific visionary director Terrence Malick is back with yet another beautiful but thin-on-plot emotional epic, this time charting the push-pull relationship of a couple while couching their marital agonies and ecstasies in a meditation on the very nature of love – both romantic and divine.

Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck star in Terrence Malick’s latest emotional epic.
Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck star in Terrence Malick’s latest emotional epic.

It's so incredibly easy to hate To the Wonder, Terrence Malick's latest emotional epic about the agonies and ecstasies of love.

The suddenly prolific director's follow-up to Tree of Life (2011) has a sweeping, grandiose visual scope, but its plot is microscopic.

Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) fall madly in love with each other, but after a holiday to Mont St-Michel, their return to Neil's native Oklahoma signals a shift in their relationship, and things begin to go awry.

Meanwhile, a priest in the local parish, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) - to whom Marina occasionally confesses - is straining to feel the power of God, and begins to doubt whether he could ever regain the same visceral spiritual connection that his vocation appears to promise.

Save for Marina yo-yoing back and forth to America (her daughter from a previous relationship in tow) and Neil reconnecting with an old flame, Jane (Rachel McAdams), that's it.

This isn't a film of plot or character development. It isn't a film of twists and resolutions. Perhaps it would be best to describe its progression as being made up of musical 'movements' (and in fact, Malick, as ever, weaves his swooping shots in perfectly with the film's orchestral soundtrack).

Which is why it's easy to hate. Ironic, given that its chief motor is - cliché as it may sound when not delivered through an instrument of such polished, aching beauty as Malick's film language - the power of love: how it weaves in and out of our lives and shapes our thoughts and decisions, and how powerless we are to make it work in our favour when things go wrong. It's also notably free of any irony at all. Malick aims high - though perhaps not as high as the philosophically sprawling Tree of Life - and makes no apologies for it. Through the character of Bardem's wavering priest, he extends his exploration of love into the love of the divine essence. From Badlands (his 1973 debut) onwards, Malick always displayed an obsession with classically 'Romantic' themes: man's relationship to the natural world being one of them. Tree of Life extended this further to a clearly Christian trajectory.

Paring down some of that film's excesses - there is nothing akin to that 20-minute 'prehistoric' sequence, which is probably for the best - Malick still manages to furnish the film with a seemingly effortless grandiosity.

Being a film about love, it also appears to know that beauty and seduction are essential ingredients of that brew.

And this tender and elusive filmmaker - he has been refusing interviews since the beginning of his career - opens To the Wonder with something of a swagger, a bravura challenge to himself, by letting us in through the viewpoint of Marina's camera phone, as she takes in the scenery from a fast-moving train. Yet, nothing about the sequence feels tawdry or rushed.

Instead, Marina's hushed voice appears - not to dump information or backstory, but to hint, to suggest: to help us build a picture of her relationship with both Neil and with the phenomenon of love in our minds, as the beautiful spool of pictures rolls by - Malick employing his deft cinematographic hand, as aided by Emmanuel Lubezki, to show us just how wonderful the world could be if we deigned to stop and take it in as we should.

To many, this might seem just like a more or less random collage of postcard images of France and America, strung together by beautiful music and beautiful actors dancing and weaving around - basically, a glorified perfume advert. An accusation often levelled at Malick is that he coasts on his ability to craft beautiful images without working hard enough to supply a riveting story and relatable characters. But to berate him for this would be to miss the point.

By cutting out the flab that comes with any form of narrative, Malick is all the better equipped to transport us. He doesn't tell you that love is a powerful, tricky thing - and that spiritual love is the most elusive thing of all. If you're receptive to him, he will show you.