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Lux Exterior

To the Wonder (2013)

Mary Cybulski/Studiocanal

Robert Delaunay described painting as being "by nature a luminous language," and "To the Wonder" continues Terrence Malick's earnest progress toward a similarly lustrous alphabet with which to communicate with a filmgoing audience. The film takes the approach tried in "The Tree of Life" and shifts to the next logical notch, leaving vocal narrative even further behind in the rearview mirror and dealing instead in poetic epigrams delivered as whispered voice-over, and magic-hour sunbeams dappling shores and fields and wildlife; all as a means to tell an ostensibly conventional real-world drama of romantic strife. Whether this actually accords with the nature of the medium in question or goes against the grain is a divisive question. Your answer will probably determine if the response to the film is to be rapture or rampage, or both.

Many similarities with "The Tree of Life" are there for the taking: in the palette chosen by Mr. Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki; in the filming style, with its close handheld cameras positioned roughly between neckline and hips while the actors go with the flow; and in the largely classical score. Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams (for a short while) and Charles Baker (for even less of a while) are points in a love quadrangle which drifts in and out of focus, the course of which must be mostly inferred from facial expressions. We never hear their names, and Mr. Malick usually pans away to contemplate the sublime horizon or a fetching tableau at exactly the point a conversation would explicate matters.

Javier Bardem comes and goes, too, as a local priest tussling with his own doubts. It's unclear whether the couple are much helped by the priest's faith, since he seems to have become unmoored from it himself. His well-meant ineffectiveness compared to the redemptive power available straight from the source by stepping outside is one of the film's chewier notions, although such is the nature of Mr. Malick's current method that it may be just a mirage. The only lengthy on-screen exposition is delivered by Romina Mondello as an apparent confidant of Ms. Kurylenko. It takes the form of a philosophical discussion about the cages of life, carried out in the middle of a suburban street and largely in Italian; as with some of the other goings-on in "To the Wonder" it seems that no one ever calls the cops.

Perhaps there's just no one anywhere to hear. Perhaps, despite the priest's investigations, the source of all that redemptive visual power on tap in the great outdoors doesn't involve some benign creator at all. This film's painterly splendors are confined to a narrower, more humane range than in "The Tree of Life"; no dinosaurs for sure, but also nothing to compare with that sudden ecstatic sight of Jessica Chastain levitating and dancing in the air. Mr. Affleck trudges through his troubles (literally, while investigating a toxic-soil incident of no clear origin) with eyes downcast to the earth, having also got his boots coated in the quaking sands of Mont-Saint-Michel; Ms. Kurylenko lays prone in the grass in a near-quote of Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World." Both of them seem perpetually rooted to the ground. Mr. Malick's love of light will never lose its poetic dimension, but "To the Wonder" seems more keen than the previous film to look down, to deal with the earth-bound; and down here you're on your own.


Opens on Feb. 22 in Britain and on April 12 in the United States.

Written and directed by Terrence Malick; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by A. J. Edwards, Keith Fraase, Shane Hazen, Christopher Roldan and Mark Yoshikawa; music by Hanan Townshend; production design by Jack Fisk; costumes by Jacqueline West; produced by Sarah Green and Nicolas Gonda; released by Studiocanal (Britain) and Magnolia Pictures (United States). Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes. This film is rated 12A by B.B.F.C. and R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Ben Affleck (Neil), Olga Kurylenko (Marina), Rachel McAdams (Jane), Javier Bardem (Father Quintana), Tatiana Chiline (Tatiana) and Romina Mondello (Anna).


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