‘To the Wonder’ received a cold reception and upon viewing it myself, I can see those tepid reviews are justified. Ben Affleck stars as Neil, an environmental inspector from Oklahoma. Neil is traveling through Europe and in Paris he meets a Ukrainian divorcee, Marina (Olga Kurylenko). The two fall in love and travel to Mont St. Michel the island abbey off the coast of Normandy. After their blissful experience at the abbey the lovers decide to relocate to Neil’s native Oklahoma.
America captivates Marina and their love blossoms but soon their relationship cools and frustration, anger and work pressures take their toll. Marina finds solace in the care of a Catholic priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). When Marina’s visa expires she returns to Europe and Neil rekindles an old relationship with Jane (McAdams). Neil learns that Marina has fallen on hard times and decides to help her but at what expense?
‘To the Wonder’ has beautiful photography, the abbey scenes are fodder for the camera. So too are Paris and Oklahoma’s golden sunsets and plains. But alas, for every breathtaking shot there are plenty more where the camera is abused. With cinema verite style montages, the camera zooms in too close and bobbles around unnecessarily, focuses on odd objects and employs redundant angles. Malick is unrestrained, lacking self control and common sense with his camera and it distracts from the story.
Dialogue in the film is at a minimum. The narrative is told mostly through visual cues. Neil says roughly two lines throughout. The story lacks detail but is done deliberately in order to focus the film on larger themes of love, tragedy, heartache and beauty; the story is impressionistic as opposed to realistic. One critic describes that while trying to capture and explore these themes Malick’s yearning for transcendence dwarfs the story and its characters. This is absolutely true as ‘To the Wonder’ and ‘Tree of Life’ both grapple with the mystical within the mundane sequences of life. Both therefore suffer from Malick’s existential aspirations, lacking in story and realistic interaction between characters and their environment.
Malick uses nature to locate people’s experiences within a larger theme of beauty and mystery. For example, Marina’s playfulness, her twirling and jumping is used to show that she is innocent, childlike and selfish like a child. However, without a realistic portrayal of her these visual vanities seem pretentious. The highlight of the story is Father Quintana. The priest suffers a loss of faith and his love for God has grown cold. Despite Fr. Quintana’s dark night of the soul he is faithful to his calling. He performs all his pastoral duties diligently, going out of his way to minister to drug addicts, prostitutes and his congregation. Fr. Quintana shows that love is not so much a feeling that comes and goes but an act of will and is expressed through self denial and sacrifice. When the story focuses on the priest and his trials it is far more gripping and real. The film’s characters and their stories offer a critique of society, where people use each other, are selfish and immature. Malick shows that people are unwilling to make the sacrifices needed to sustain and strengthen relationships.
‘To the Wonder’ is an interesting film but if realism in a story and characters is what you seek, it will leave you feeling frustrated. It would have been a much stronger film if the story had unfolded more simply and had more dialogue making the characters come to life.