Film review: To the Wonder (12A)


Terrence Malick is a director with no fear of the high-flown. His yearning meditations on love and transcendence flirt with portentousness, yet they are so achingly felt and beautifully made you can't help wanting to like them.

To the Wonder is something of a climbdown from the thin air of his previous, The Tree of Life, but it's absolutely characteristic in its style: the gnomic voiceovers, the desultory edits, the undramatised vagueness.

Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko play off-and-on lovers, first in her native Paris, later in the serene midwestern nowhere-town where he grew up. Something is wrong between them, but it takes a lot of mystical blather and strained silences for us to work out what it might be.

In between we eavesdrop on the thoughts of a Catholic priest (Javier Bardem), harrowed by his poor parishioners, and of Rachel McAdams as an old flame of Affleck's returning to complicate matters. As ever with Malick, clarity of meaning lags some way behind clarity of vision. Because he prefers voiceover to dialogue the reality of his characters' lives always feels at one remove; everything seems oblique, provisional, muffled.

"What is this love that loves us?" is a typical Malick line in that it sounds quite profound but leaves you wondering what the hell it means. He also uses his actors in the way that Caspar David Friedrich paints his lonely figures in a landscape; brooding and enigmatic for Affleck, floaty and girlish for Kurylenko, who does more twirling around fields and supermarket aisles than even an admirer could decently stand.

Yes, the sight of her coppery brown hair matching the autumn leaves at magic hour is quite something, but I'd trade most of that for a single spoken line that doesn't sound like it came from a prayer or a poem. Malick loves her wavy hair even more than he does wavy net curtains and wavy cornfields. She's beautiful, of course, but, just like this film, maddening after a while.