You may know Terrence Malick for being the elusive visionary who was nominated for 7 Academy Awards upon directing The Thin Red Line in 1998 (itself a true cinematic landmark). I, though, will always remember him as the mind behind two more recent movies; 2011’s sweeping, surreal modern classic known as The Tree Of Life is one of them. The other is a spirited, thought-provoking, beautiful and wistful romance with a twist. That movie is 2012’s To the Wonder.
The plot centres on the kind of simple premise that you might find tagged onto any run-of-the-mill romantic drama. Neil (Ben Affleck) falls in love with a Parisian woman named Marina (Olga Kurylenko). Marina moves in with Neil in Oklahoma, and from there, one problem after another plagues what seemed like a perfect romance. And from that simple beginning, the story grows in complexity as Marina’s visa expires, Neil meets a beautiful woman (Rachael McAdams) from his childhood; all sorts of plot points that you might expect to make up an Eastenders saga. Where Malick excels as a writer here is in his development of a richly textured and layered narrative. The pastor at Neil and Marina’s local church (Javier Bardem) starts to struggle with his faith at the same time as Neil and Marina struggle with their relationship, leading to this fascinating theme throughout comparing love to religious faith. For me, a romance has to say something interesting and fresh about love to truly stand head and shoulders above its contemporaries, and this thematic angle is what really elevates To the Wonder as a story.
Over a couple of hundred words into this review, and I haven’t even mentioned where this film really shines! That would be in the visual department. Apart from the simply breathtakingly beautiful cinematography (courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki, a name you might remember from the credits of The Revenant, Birdman and Gravity), Malick himself deserves a lot of credit as director for making To the Wonder a story that unfolds visually with a bare minimum of diegetic dialogue. Much like The Tree Of Life before it, dialogue between characters on screen is mostly background noise, a lot of it having only the most subtle of impacts on plot development. Apparently, Malick takes years to edit his film footage upon wrapping a production, and it really shows here, as watching this gives you the impression that you’re looking at the result of an intense trimming of hours of raw footage of the leading cast. Poetic voice-overs give the narrative a little bit more direction. All of this gives off such a dreamlike quality, and it all looks so simple in execution, despite being a rich and complex narrative as it is.
This could so easily have the result of being style over substance, but where I think this shines and The Tree Of Life falls a little short is in the relative simplicity of its story, or at least on the surface. As in love with the latter as I am, To the Wonder is a lot easier to follow as a story. This is due in no small part to the stellar work of the cast. Bardem plays the part of his troubled pastor with as much warmth and humanity as Affleck does his hard-working, caring pragmatist, and Kurylenko her naïve, ditsy free spirit, all of whom are shackled by a harsh and uncaring world.
To the Wonder is so majestic in its characterisation, atmosphere and visuals. I’m personally not religious by any stretch of the imagination, but I can accept the love as faith theme for what it is: an essential cog in the gorgeous machine that is this movie. Quite why this film got such an underwhelming reception from critics and moviegoers upon release is anyone’s guess. If I’m going to start this series of reviews of the underrated and overlooked anywhere though, I’m going to start it here, because this film is truly a mini masterpiece of sorts and deserves the attention of any film lover.
Written by Alex Preiss