Gorgeous cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki almost makes To the Wonder worth seeing. Unfortunately, director/writer Terrence Malick fails to flesh out this drama with a plot we can follow. No wonder one of the characters says, “Something’s missing.” Like Malick’s The Tree of Life, we can’t help wondering what’s happening -- and why -- during most of the film’s running time. Yes, we understand it’s meant to be about love. The beginning voice-overs make that perfectly clear. And the visuals of the happy couple underscore a romantic theme. But there’s not much dialogue to clue us in about the lovers. In fact, if it weren’t for those short poetic voice-overs. To the Wonder could be a silent movie. Not that there’s anything wrong with silent films. But most directors back then at least tried to present a comprehensible story.
With all that in mind, dear reader, please be patient while I try to piece together this cinematic puzzle. Beautiful Ukranian divorcée Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meets handsome American Neil (Ben Affleck) in Paris and falls madly in love with him. Neil persuades Marina and her 10-year old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline, a promising newcomer) to go back to Oklahoma with him. When Marina’s visa runs out, Neil doesn’t ask her to stay. He re-unites with a former girlfriend (Rachel McAdams), but that relationship doesn’t last either. After Marina goes through some hard times, she returns to Neil. Despite Marina’s obsession with Neil, major problems arise between the two. What will happen to them? By that time, all we care about are the intriguing visuals Lubezki (The Tree of Life) offers us.
Performances are a mixed bag in To the Wonder. Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) projects considerable energy in scenes showing Marina running, spinning, giggling through fields, rooms and stores. She also knows how to look very sad and melancholy. McAdams (Red Eye) convinces us of her character’s down-to-earth seriousness. But Affleck (Argo) shows so little “affect” that it’s not clear why he accepted the role of Neil. I had to agree with my husband when he complained, “Ben Affleck looks like he’s about to do something, but then doesn’t. He just stands around in this film.” As a priest struggling with his faith, Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) appears appropriately pensive in most of his scenes. Too bad his character seems almost an afterthought.
So what’s it all about? Although romantic passion, unrequited love, culture clash, issues of faith, and devastating loneliness receive attention in To the Wonder, Lubezki’s dreamlike cinematic artistry ends up as the true wonder here.
(Released by Magnolia Pictures and rated “R” for some sexuality/nudity.)
For more information about this film, go to the Internet Movie Data Base or Rotten Tomatoes website.