DVD Review: ‘To the Wonder’

Following up 2011’s Palme d’Or-winning The Tree of Life was always going to be a tough gig for American auteur Terrence Malick, but few commentators could have predicted the huge division of opinion that new film To the Wonder would provoke. Released this week on DVD and Blu-ray, To the Wonder sees Malick collaborating once again with Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (combining to predictably resplendent effect), and whilst criticism has been raised over the film’s lack of narrative drive and its high-faluting voiceovers, this is still very much a partner piece to The Tree of Life’s quest for everyday divinity.

Academy Awarder Ben Affleck (unlikely to work with Malick again following a recent spat) stars as American overseas Neil, who falls in love with Ukrainian single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko) during a stay in Paris. Marina and her young daughter – from a previous marriage – agree to travel to Neil’s home state of Oklahoma in order to start a new life together. However, relationships soon become frayed, with Marina forced to depart on expiry of her and Tatiana’s (Tatiana Chiline) visas. In her absence, Neil begins seeing childhood sweetheart Jane (Rachel McAdams), whilst conscientious local priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) – who only sees pain and the loss of hope in the world – struggles with his faith.

Returning to The Tree of Life’s uncompromising preoccupation with spirituality and forces seemingly beyond human comprehension (which Bardem’s clergyman attempts to grapple with), To the Wonder does a fine job of sculpting out its central cast of characters with minimal exposition and/or dialogue. Where possible, Malick and Lubezki’s extraordinary visuals take the lead in telling the tale, complemented by Hanan Townshend’s suitably grandiose original score. Whilst this undeniably ‘arthouse’ (‘pretentious’ would probably be the term best favoured by Malick’s harshest detractors) approach will obviously alienate some, you’d certainly struggle to find many directors working today capable of blending aesthetics with thematics so satisfyingly.

It would be fair to concede that certain moments during the film’s whispered narration don’t quite hit ring true to the same extent as others (“What is this love that loves us?”, Kurylenko’s Mariana enquires), but To the Wonder is far from the glorified perfume ad that the film’s most fervent detractors had likened it to. Rich and effervescent, whilst at the same time deeply melancholic, Malick’s latest is also arguably one of his most personal to date. He may have produced better, but rarely have we seen America’s foremost arthouse exponent so in-tune with human complexity.

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Daniel Green