Film review: To the Wonder - The camera as a lovelorn kitten, mewing for attention


A mere 18 months after The Tree of Life, the previously unprolific Terrence Malick is back with To the Wonder, an impressionistic, non-linear, semi-improvised meditation on the love of nature and the nature of love.

That seems to be the idea, anyway. What it amounts to in practice is an infuriatingly oblique, almost dialogue-free non-drama in which the camera stalks its characters through sun-dappled cornfields and lifestyle-magazine interiors, while they whisper enigmatic epigrams in voiceover. Rather like a two-hour perfume advert, in fact: "Corn ... by Terrence Malick", perhaps.

Ben Affleck plays Neil, a strong, silent type with whom single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko) falls passionately in love. They marry, then make a home together – a new-build in one of those precisely arranged suburbs that connotes both optimism and conformity, plonked on the flat Oklahoma landscape like a piece on the Monopoly board. Marina is a girlish sprite who never walks when she can skip. Yet Neil's attention is diverted by earthy ranch hand Jane (Rachel McAdams). Marina consults a soulful priest (Javier Bardem), but he is experiencing his own anguish over loss of love: God's.

Malick's cinema used to be characterised by a kind of meditative watchfulness, but here his camera won't stop moving. It swoops across the landscape and wheedles around the characters like a lovelorn kitten, perhaps as if to prod them into saying something.

Lore (Cate Shortland, 109 mins, 15 ****) is another pastoral drama, but its rural landscapes contain a frightening moral vacuum. The title character is the teenage daughter of a Nazi officer who, come the spring of 1945, is left to fend for herself and her four younger siblings. Leading them on foot to their grandmother's house in northern Germany, she must barter for their survival. As the outer ripples of world events begin to reach her, a carapace of ignorance, superiority and allegiance to the Führer starts to dissolve.

There is no shortage of violence or ugliness for Lore to catch sight of. But with a Malick-like attention to the greenness of spring and the play of light through treetops, the Australian director Cate Shortland suggests a world blinking awake after the nightmare of the preceding years. And in a performance of real subtlety and composure, the 19-year-old star, Saskia Rosendahl, elides Lore's budding sexuality and dawning horror.

Rarely has the coming-of-age of such an unsympathetic character been so carefully observed or so fascinating to see.