Film review: To the Wonder

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THE arrival of a new Terrence Malick film is always an event in the film world, and a chance for critics to buff up phrases like “visionary” and “emotional intensity” whilst trying not to get wistful about focus and structure.

To The Wonder (12A)

Director: Terrence Malick

Running time: 112 minutes

* *

On good days, he makes absorbing meditations like Tree Of Life, or Badlands. On bad ones, he produces works of coffee table existentialism like To The Wonder, a hazy love story where you barely care about the people involved.

American Neil (Ben Affleck) meets Parisian Marina (Quantum Of Solace Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, right) in France and soon they are exchanging rapturous gazes on the TGV, wandering around the tidal island of Mon Saint Michel, known as the Wonder of the West. Affleck is a director himself, but he seems a little lost in Malick’s grand design, which requires him to behave naturalistically inside artful visual frames of wind-rippled wheat. He also endures a lot of dancing by Kurylenko, twirling along the Champs Elysees, pirouetting in Ben’s house in Oklahoma, or whirling around fields, occasionally partnered by a mop or a chicken.

At first, Affleck ­essays the ­intrigued expression of a man who has accidentally wandered into the lingerie section at M&S, but after the fifth round of Martha Graham callanetics, he looks more like a man dragged around Claire’s Accessories on cup final day.

Then the relationship falters, Marina goes home and Neil moves on to a childhood sweetheart (Rachel McAdams). They spend a lot of time watching a herd of ­bison. Then Neil and Bison Lady break up, and Neil and Marina get back together, though the dancing becomes more subdued. Every so ­often we also touch base with a ­ priest (Javier Bardem) whose relationship with God is also going through a rocky phase. It’s a counterpoint to the main story, rather like the digressions in Tree Of Life, which balanced an impressionistic 1950s American childhood with creation, afterlife and encounters with dinosaurs.

Adding dinosaurs to To The Wonder might have helped distract from the lack of narrative motor. Instead, the film is guided by murmured voiceovers which exceed the limit on rhetorical questions allowed in a screenplay. “Where are we, when we’re here?” whispers the film, trying to make its lack of drama feel philosophical. This is like being locked up with those old TV ads for Calvin Klein’s Obsession: “What is this love that loves us? You, cloud. You love me too.”

You may wonder if Malick really believes the natural world is such a loving place, or if he’s auditioning for the next Little Book Of Calm. You may have other questions too. Will Malick ever tire of his soulful child-women? How long can you linger on feet bouncing off sea-soaked mudflats before it becomes a poetic indulgence? And is it true that old directors don’t fade away; they just turn into collectors of lovely, listless images? «

On general release