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 To The Wonder

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Donald McKinney
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PostSubject: To The Wonder   Thu Mar 21, 2013 5:31 pm

While Terrence Malick was engaged in the lengthy post-production process of The Tree of Life (2011), little did people know that Malick had another film in mind. Malick is a man who had a break of 20 years between making Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998), so they weren't expecting anything in a hurry, but Malick started principal photography on The Tree of Life only 2 and a half years after The New World (2005) had opened. But, something happened, in February 2010, word got out that Malick had started work on another film, filming started in September that year, but it's plot was kept under wraps. For those that were able to get photos from the set out in Oklahoma, some presumed the film was about fishing, (indeed there is a scene involving fishing, only one scene), and the title was rumoured to be The Burial, (which was also untrue). After The Tree of Life was released and split audiences down the middle, many wondered what Malick's next film would be like, it's title of To The Wonder was unveiled during the summer of 2012, by which point Malick had started work on another 3 films, perplexing and shocking those who wondered how long we would have to wait for another Malick film. To The Wonder is a challenging film, but it's a soothing and relaxing film, which puts you at peace, and has a spiritual mood about it, but without being preachy about religion or belief. But it also shows the complexity of relationships and how we can at times question our own faith and whether it's worth it.

It begins in Paris, where American Neil (Ben Affleck) meets Eastern European Marina (Olga Kurylenko), who has a daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) from a previous marriage, Neil falls in love with Marina, and Neil proposes to her, and they go to Mont Saint-Michel, on the North West coast of France, where they declare their love for one another. Neil asks Marina to come back to America with him, and live with him in his hometown in Oklahoma, along with Tatiana. Marina agrees and they move to America, but both Marina and Tatiana struggle to fit in with the American dream, and it does put a massive strain on Neil and Marina's relationship, and Marina loses patience and moves back to France with Tatiana. Neil, now alone in the world, finds solace in childhood friend Jane (Rachel McAdams), they haven't seen each other in a while, and they reconnect, and attempt a relationship. Meanwhile, back in France, Marina begins to miss Neil, and she heads back to America alone to give their relationship another go, but no sooner than she returns than she learns that it's just going to be the same. Meanwhile, the town's priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), is struggling to find meaning with his vocation, and seeing people suffer and wither close to death have put a strain on him. But, he's on hand to help give advice and support to Marina, who is starting to think whether it was worth coming back to America, and he also gives Neil advice on how to cope with this taxing relationship.

This is a very difficult film to rate, as this is not a film where the script moves the story along, rather it's the images that move the story along. Indeed, there was no script for this film, just an outline that Malick devised, as well as narration that Malick wrote as well. This is a very unconventional way to make a film, while filming in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. They would quickly film in one location, then be filming on another part of town 20 minutes later. Plus, most of the filming took place during the magic hour, that time of the day when the sun has set, but there's still light in the sky. It doesn't even last an hour, more like 20-30 minutes, but it gives off a warm and other-worldly light. This time of day does lead to some beautiful shots throughout the film, and only Malick could make a set of pylons going through a field look beautiful on screen. Plus, there is narration throughout the film, from Affleck, Kurylenko, McAdams and Bardem, with a lot by Kurylenko and Bardem in French and Spanish. It somehow gives this American film a decidedly European flavour. This is also the first time that Malick has done a film set entirely in the present day, but it feels like an old fashioned film, and the America is portrays is a traditional America, with little technology.

Malick reunites with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, after working together on The New World and The Tree of Life, and Lubezki's camera work brings out a dream like quality to this world, and it's easy on the eye and the camera moves quietly, and even though it's hand-held, it never feels shaky, and it doesn't bring about motion sickness or queasiness as hand held camera shots usually do, but this is a slow film, and the camera is used delicately, and it has an almost fly-on-the-wall feel about it, looking at this relationship from unorthodox angles and in quick bites. There's a gentle and relaxing score by newcomer Hanan Townshend, based in Austin Texas, Townshend had done some blurbs of music for The Tree of Life, but it adds to the mood of the film, and this is not a film you would go to see to be entertained by, this is a film to stimulate the brain, and also help you to relax as well. It's a fact that Malick leaves the camera running when he's making a film, and he "finds" the film later on in the editing suite, and he did so with the aid of 5 editors. A.J. Edwards, Keith Fraase, Shane Hazen, Christopher Roldan and Mark Yoshikawa. All of whom have worked with Malick in some capacity or other since The New World and The Tree of Life. It's amazing to think that Malick needed 5 editors to get the film down to near two hours, but there was loads of other scenes filmed, with actors Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Michael Sheen all hitting the cutting room floor...

But, for those who did make the final cut, this is a different kind of film to see them in. For those who are easily riled by Ben Affleck, you needn't worry, this is a very different type of part for him. The sensitive lover, one who doesn't say much, and lets his expressions and emotions do the talking, there's a lot of body shots and shots of the back of his head, which can be a bit jarring, but maybe this what Malick envisioned all along, a different kind of performance from Affleck. Naturalistic and stripped back. Olga Kurylenko is a thing of beauty as Marina, who is struggling to cope with life in America, and the promise of a new life turns into a nightmare. She's the central character of this film, and a domineering presence over the film, but Marina is a woman trying to make sense of life. Rachel McAdams makes for a nice supporting role as Neil's old flame Jane after Marina has temporarily decided to move back to France, (McAdams had filmed a lot more footage, but most of that ended up on the cutting room floor as well.) It's also good to see Javier Bardem as a the tormented padre, also struggling to find his place in the world, and trying to keep going by constantly reaffirming his faith in Christianity.





In short, To The Wonder is an art film which just happens to have a big cast, but there is a lot to admire about the film, it's very pleasant on the eye, and while the threadbare central plot has been done many times before, it's the way Malick tells it and films it what makes it interesting. You might think that this story has no dramatic conflict to keep it going or that there's no fireworks so to speak. But they do occur with what Malick films, it might be a slow film, but it's well worth the watch. In fact, this is a brilliant companion piece to The Tree of Life, it will test your patience, but bear with it. It's hard to sum up To The Wonder, but it's an experiment in relationships, and how we find love, lose love, regain love, but never lose faith along the way. But, if this is the finished product, you think whether what Malick cut out of the film would have helped it more or whether he might have a directors cut one day, indeed, there's one or two moments in To The Wonder that look like outtakes from The Tree of Life, and they very well could be. It's a known fact that The Tree of Life was a very personal film for Malick, but it's also possible that To The Wonder could also be just as personal for him too. But, Malick is having fun at the minute, something unlocked inside him when he finished The Tree of Life, the floodgates are opened, and he's making films like there's no tomorrow, and it'll be exciting to see what his next 3 films and any beyond that have to offer.
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