Bewilderment and boredom, rather than beguilement and fascination, are the only attitudes you’re likely to express after watching “To the Wonder,” an artsy experiment from none other than director Terrence Malick.
I think Malick may have bitten off more than he could chew here in his effort to push the boundaries of cinema. Here, it seems, he forgets the ancient “show, don’t tell” guideline. Perhaps he tries a tad too hard to prove his point about love, opting for overt explanation that imbues “To the Wonder” with a forced insight into romance.
The story centers on Neil (Ben Affleck), who, while touring Europe, meets and falls in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a divorcée from the Ukraine and now resides in Paris with her daughter Tatiana. For a time, the lovers bask in the beauty of their romance. Soon afterwards, Neil decides to relocate to Oklahoma, and he invites Marina and Tatiana to come with him.
But no sooner does the couple settle into their American life than their relationship cools. In the midst of this passionless time period, Marina becomes acquainted with the Catholic priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem).
During some time apart, Neil finds himself reconnecting with Jane (Rachel McAdams), an old flame he knew from his childhood. They, too, fall in love — that is, until Neil discovers that Marina has been experiencing hard times. When she returns to him, nothing will ever be the same.
The only elements I can say nice things about are the stunning cinematography and effective use of natural lights. A rarely motionless camera captures the decorative majesty of the Parisian city and Mont St. Michel monastery, and brings a humble aura to the Oklahoma countryside. Even something as simple as the interior of Neil and Marina’s house possesses a subtle beauty that does not go unappreciated by Malick’s sharp eye.
One of the more experimental aspects that Malick employs in the film is having the actors work without a screenplay. It’s an intriguing alternative, sure, but the outcome leaves the audience with no narrative to follow. And when there is no story to invest in, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when you wonder if there’s a point to what you’re seeing.
Another drawback lies within the use of extensive voiceover, which results in the film speaking for the images rather than letting them do the talking.
The disconnection between the characters and audience leaves an empty feeling as each scene comes and goes. We don’t get the opportunity to look at the world through neither Marina’s or Jane’s eyes, nor do we find ourselves establishing any semblance of a connection with Neil or Father Quintana.
Thematically, I couldn’t help but realize Malick never delves fully into the complexities of love that his film seeks to explore. Such a theme deserves a thorough exploration, but the director digs no more than a few feet below the surface and stops short of reaching his goal.
Whether this means he did a half-decent job or tried to make the best of a difficult experiment is up for debate, but whatever the circumstances, he failed to deliver the artsy goods.
This film is strictly for Malick fans, as well as for those who take an interest in art-house/experimental cinematic experiences.
As for the cast members, they did what they could. Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams are the standouts, but that is only if you have the mindset for the cinematic environment seen only in a Terrence Malick film. And as much as I hate to say this, both Ben Affleck and Javier Bardem’s talents are sorely underutilized.
“To the Wonder” won’t sit well with “Average Joes,” but I suppose it’ll click with art-house fans and Malick admirers.
MPAA rating: R for some sexuality and nudity.
Running time: 1 hours 52 minutes
Playing: Limited release