Arts Review, Movies

To The Wonder

To The Wonder featured image

Photo from

Terrence Malick, director & writer

Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki

Starring: Ben Affleck (Neil), Olga Kurylenko (Marina), Rachel McAdams (Jane), Javier Bardem (Father Quintana), Tatiana Chiline (Tatiana)

The buzz

Terrence Malick originally cast Christian Bale, Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Michael Sheen but abandoned that version of the production and discarded all of the footage that had been shot.

Made with an entirely different cast, To The Wonder played at Venice and TIFF last fall and is finally being released now.


The genres

Art film; romance


The premise

Neil, an American in Paris, falls in love with Marina, a beautiful Ukrainian exile living there with her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana. The three journey through France—especially and memorably at Mont Saint-Michel, the glorious island in Normandy where monks at a protected monastery rewrote and illustrated many sacred texts during Europe’s medieval period.

Besotted with love, Marina takes Tatiana with her and comes to Oklahoma to be with Neil. But things go horribly wrong in America. Tatiana hates it there and wants to be reunited with her father, who is living in France. Marina’s physical displacement becomes emotional: she can no longer connect with Neil. The only person she can relate to is Father Quintana, who is also a stranger in the strange land of Oklahoma. Eventually, she and Tatiana go back to France.

Neil stays, continuing his work in Oklahoma, where he’s involved in the construction of homes in a community that is involved in the burgeoning oil and gas industry. He reconnects with Jane, an old lover. They have an affair but she finds him emotionally unresponsive to her needs—as did Marina. Jane ends her relationship with Neil.

Marina is still in communication with Neil. She’s desperately unhappy in Paris; Tatiana has left her to go to the south to be with her father. Neil sends money for Marina to come back to Oklahoma. But things work out no better for them the second time. Even Father Quintana is no help as he’s having a crisis of faith and is struggling to find personal redemption.

In a way, all of them—Neil, Marina, Jane, even Tatiana and certainly the priest—are searching for a way back to a sense of glory and transcendence. They grasp it from time to time, when nature is at its most picturesque—at dawn looking at the skies of Oklahoma or at Mont Saint-Michel—or when they feel most in love. But then it fades away.

Mariana leaves again and Neil, a handsome cipher throughout the film, remains alone, isolated in the great American West.


The performances

Malick is an absolute auteur. He controls every aspect of his productions, from visuals to sound to editing. In his films, it’s almost impossible for a performer to make a mark. His narratives progress through voice-overs while scenes move poetically and intuitively around fields, with people dancing and moody shots of characters looking into vistas.

It’s not his fault but Ben Affleck is absolutely impenetrable in this film. He and Olga Kurylenko seem to have been cast for their physical beauty—and that’s what they are: gorgeous and unknowable even to themselves.

Javier Bardem is stuck with a rather pretentious series of monologues about his loss of faith. He may be condemned for a poor performance but this great actor is simply a vessel in a Malick film.

Rachel McAdams is the one exception To The Wonder. She narrates the interlude she has with Neil and manages to convey her loneliness and sense of pride, which is betrayed by a man, whom she has known and loved before. It’s the one real performance in the film.


The writer/director

Terrence Malick has been making the same film for 30 years. Each features amazing visuals—kudos must go to his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and art director Jack Fisk—flatly read voice-overs, physically beautiful actors and landscapes and an over-riding sense of philosophical discomfort. That’s been true for material as diverse as The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven and The New World. It’s true here again.

Lovers of classical music will find a key to Malick’s emotional and philosophical quest in his choices of music for his films. Invariably, they’re vast, exotic, gorgeous and often religious. For To The Wonder, Malick has used: Henryk Gorecki’s Third Symphony, Wagner’s Parisfal (he often uses Wagner), Arvo Part’s Fratres for Eight Cellos, (another Malick favorite:) Bach’s Unto Us a Child is Born, Dvorak’s New World Symphony (for Oklahoma scenes), Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 2 and even Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead.

You get the point, don’t you?


The skinny

Terrence Malick’s films are a bit like eating oysters. You either love them or hate them. To The Wonder is either a masterpiece or a waste of two good hours.

Actually, it’s both.

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