Revered director Terrence Malick's sixth feature in forty years stars former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck as a couple who meet and fall in love in Paris. After moving back to his native Oklahoma, they experience a series of dramatic upheavals, as they struggle to understand and maintain their love for one another.
Terrence Malick- genius visionary? Or pedlar of pretension? However you view Malick and his output will colour your opinion on his latest offering, To The Wonder.
Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko play Neil and Jane, a couple who fell in love in France but are struggling with their relationship after a move to Neil's featureless home town in Oklahoma.
Javier Bardem is a priest, wrestling with his faith and his limited influence on his congregation. And that's about it. The narrative is as uninspiring as the area's rural plains. It's pure Malick.
So we have a meditation on both romantic love, and divine love, and this being Malick, it's largely in voiceover. Oppressive, interminable, risible voiceover. 'What is this love that loves us?', muses Jane. In French. It has all the emotional profundity of a bargain bin fragrance advert, post Christmas. Eau de toilette de Malick.
Every frame is filled with wistful looks, lens flares, trees, water, plants, water, lens flares and trees. And water. Nobody apparently ever goes outside or stands by a window unless it's sunset. Everyone stands with their back to the sun. All the time.
Of course the cinematography is glorious - every lens flare, tree, river, plant, lens flare, puddle, meadow, tidal ebb and lens flare lovingly captured by Emmanuel Lubezki. But to what end? Some people can find meaning in the roll of a dice, in discarded tea leaves, and in chicken entrails. Those who are determined can certainly find some meaning in a Terrence Malick film.
Apparently, Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet and Barry Pepper all found themselves cut out of To The Wonder. Trimming a character, streamlining the narrative, and dropping a subplot are understandable. But culling four different actors? That smacks of a film directed from the edit suite.
Adrien Brody famously signed on as the star in Malick's The Thin Red Line, but on viewing the finished film, was stunned to discover that Jim Caviezel had become the story's focus, with his role reduced to just a few lines. He was lucky. Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, Jason Patric, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke all missed the cut. Can Malick really be as meticulous about the construction of his films as his apologists contest?
It all begs the question - for whom does Malick makes his films? Himself? His friends? His acolytes? It's certainly not the audience. Too often, To The Wonder feels like an interminable video installation from a lazy art student.
Ahead of the film's release, Ben Affleck warned "To The Wonder makes The Tree Of Life look like Transformers." He is wrong. To The Wonder is a far less offensive piece of work than Malick's previous, impenetrable, flatulent offering. There are no poorly rendered CGI dinosaurs here, no glacial birth-of-life montages. The Tree Of Life wasn't just a case of the Emperor's new clothes, it was a case of the Emperor waving his dingle-dangle at the camera for two hours.
To The Wonder is not the unwatchably pompous affair that was its predecessor. It is tiresome instead of tedious, plodding instead of potty, and has at least a shred of a story that you can hang on to while any enjoyment gallops over a distant hill.
The Tree Of Life insulted the audience. To The Wonder merely tests it.