Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams
Watch To the Wonder online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Amazon Instant / iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
“I don’t expect anything – just to go a little way together.”
That’s Marisa (Kurylenko) whispering to Neil (Affleck), the man who convinced her to move to the US with him and her daughter. That’s how you can tell it’s a Terrence Malick film: most of the dialogue is whispered, usually in a field full of long grass. At sunset.
To the Wonder more than lives up to the Malick stereotypes, shooting everything in a whirl of colour and golden light (almost nothing happens to Neil and Marisa that doesn’t take place in the magic hour). Rousing orchestral music rises over the top, as Olga Kurylenko utters barely audible French and Ben Affleck shambles around looking sad. At times, it borders on self-parody – but if you’re going to watch any filmmaker parody themselves, you can’t do much better than Terrence Malick.
We join Marisa and Neil as they stroll through Mont Saint-Michel, high on romance and the beautiful surroundings. Their love, which verges on religious epiphany, finds a heady parallel in the bond between a priest (Javier Bardem) and his lord. As Marisa finds herself an outside in America and Affleck drifts towards an old flame (Rachel McAdams), Bardem’s faith waivers as well. Everyone is unsure. Nothing makes sense. The plot is delivered in random chunks of barely logical narrative. And it’s all gob-smackingly beautiful.
Whether you fall for To the Wonder will depend on your tolerance for Malick’s wayward pretention. In Tree of Life, the abstract storytelling matched his ambitious ideas. Here, in a more grounded story, it jars. But the cast’s evocative performances keep you hooked – especially the mesmerising Olga Kurylenko – suggesting emotional arcs and lofty themes with barely an audible word.
Frustration takes over in the film’s second half, but every time you prepare to give up, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography makes your jaw drop once again. The fact that To the Wonder is Malick’s only film to take place in the present day provides a new yet familiar palette for him and his DoP to play with – and they clearly enjoy doing just that, blending celluloid and digital photography with an eye for tiny details. You could argue that the end result is best seen in a cinema, but a Blu-ray or iTunes HD download (combined with a projector or large TV) offers an intimate way to engage with this awkwardly gorgeous romance.
Don’t expect a masterpiece from the director – just go a little way together. You’ll be surprised how far he sweeps you.
While the visual quality is better than DVD, the downside of digital releases can be that you don’t get any bonus content. In this case, the extras are slim pickings anyway: a 10-minute behind the scenes featurette and amiable interview with Olga Kurylenko offer a cursory insight into the chaotic way Malick works – even his actors don’t have a clue what’s going on – but you wish we could hear from the man himself. Still, it’s worth watching just for Ben Affleck’s bemused dedication to the cause. “I read Heidegger to see if it would give me any insight,” he admits to the camera off-set. “It gave me no insight.”
To the Wonder is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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