After visiting Mont Saint-Michel (also known as The Wonder), Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) move to Oklahoma, where it becomes clear that their relationship – which seems idyllic – is anything but. Marina meets a priest struggling with his vocation, while Neil renews his ties with a childhood friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams).
Let’s get this out of the way first. I loved Tree of Life. Seriously loved it. It was one of my favourite films of 2011. To The Wonder will not be one of my favourite films of 2013.
The story of To The Wonder is paper thin – girl meets boy, girl moves to America with boy, girl leaves, boy dates someone else, girl comes back – but that would be fine if the dialogue was fleshed out. That seems like a silly statement coming from someone who loved Tree of Life, so let me rephrase; that would be fine if motivations, feelings and dialogue were fleshed out.
The audience is very quickly given the feeling that Marina and Neil are in love. There are literally hundreds of shots of the two of them goofing around and holding one another while looking pretty. So far so good. The problems for the audience arise when they are not told anything more than that. Any emotional connection is never developed on screen, and is supplanted with a voiceover about love and how much they love one another. So when the relationship falls apart, it is little wonder.
As Marina, Olga Kurylenko spends most of her time walking around barefoot, spinning in circles in various pretty locations and then packing her stuff and leaving. The character seems flighty and impulsive, and it is obvious that her love for Neil borders on obsession. As Neil, Ben Affleck is given little more to do than lumber around and be emotionally distant. Coupled with the film’s portrayal of Marina, since the characters are never named on screen, this gives the impression that this is Malick’s commentary on men and women in general, not just the two on screen.
It is not clear why Javier Bardem’s character is in the film. Maybe his crisis of faith mirrors the disillusion of Marina and Neil’s relationship? It is hard to tell. The same goes for Rachel McAdams as Jane. She is just as obsessive as Marina, but has the good grace to disappear when Neil loses interest in her. The character may seem to be the antithesis to Marina, but she still spends ages twirling in a bloody field. Gah!
To The Wonder is a thin but pretty film. It is just a shame that pretty is given preference over substance and, even though the simplistic examination of the end of a relationship may feel like a commentary of sorts, it is hard to know what Malick was attempting to achieve with the film. Maybe the most satisfying answer is that Neil and Marina are Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain’s characters from Tree of Life before they had kids – anachronistically of course – but while that may tie up some of the loose ends, it does not make up for a lack of mood and substance throughout the film.