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TIFF Day 5 – To the Wonder

Read all our TIFF 2012 coverage here.

Not quite a tree of life – ★★★½

[TIFF listing]

Director: Terrence Malick  //  Country: USA  //  Year: 2012  //  Language: English, French, Russian, Italian, Spanish  //  Runtime: 112 minutes  //  Principal Cast: Javier Bardem, Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams  //  Screenplay: Terrence Malick

How the hell do you go about reviewing a Terrence Malick film? That’s actually a serious question. The traditional structure we like to follow here at Spooool – nice soft welcome and intro, plot details, chat about what works and what doesn’t, quick summary – doesn’t really apply to his films.

Malick’s last film, The Tree of Life, told the story of formation of the universe but used the microcosm of an American family to try to bring it down to our level. It went on to be named Sight & Sound magazine’s “film of the year” and received oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. And yet a huge proportion of film-goers were bored by it, many more frustrated. But the most popular feeling was one of being overcome by the film’s scope, ambition and grandeur. I have great memories of the experience of seeing The Tree of Life in the TIFF Bell Lighbox the weekend it came out, but have absolutely no desire to see it  for quite some time. What that says about the film or me I don’t know…

The follow-up, To The Wonder, arrives only 16 months later. For a man who directed five films in 38 years, with a twenty-year gap between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998), that’s quite a quick turnaround. Perhaps it’s this shorter time-span which contributes the sense that we’re not really getting anything new here, with the film feeling more like a DVD-extra “branch” of The Tree of Life (get it?) than a completely fresh project.

The film ostensibly deals with a couple (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, their character names never mentioned in the film) who visited Mont Saint-Michel (known in France as “The Wonder”) in the early days of their relationship. He is an American, she a French native with a daughter from another relationship. They all move to Oklahoma where cracks in their union start to form.  He briefly re-unites with a childhood friend played by Rachel McAdams. She finds solace in the friendship of a priest and fellow exile (Javier Bardem), who is struggling with his vocation.

Working again with cinematographer Emanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, the film is gorgeous and the contrast between the winding Parisian streets and the developing industry shaping the Oklahoma country-side is striking. The camera rarely sits still and trails our characters at waist-height as they make their way through Malick’s world. The angle is almost akin to the perspective of a child looking up at these characters as they struggle to accept their existence. The trademarks twirls from the women and quiet strolling from the men are all present and correct, topped off with the vague whispered statements – “What is this love beyond love?” – mostly from Kurylenko and Bardem’s characters, much of it in French and Spanish.

It’s probably these two European actors who come out of of this the best with strong, engaging performances giving everything you would want in something that is really just meant to be a visual poem. Affleck seems a little lost as he wanders around the place and is left with about eight or nine lines of dialogue in the whole film. You wonder what part Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, Jessica Chastain and Barry Pepper would have played if their performances had not been cut from the final film.

To the Wonder is a beautifully shot, engaging look at a strand of thought of one of cinema’s great mavericks. The film asks considerably more questions than it answers, but lacks the scale and spectacle of The Tree of Life. Simply put, if you enjoyed his last film, you’ll enjoy this one a little less. Bear in mind that there is absolutely nothing here for detractors of the man.

Read all our TIFF 2012 coverage here.