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‘To the Wonder’ so beautiful, yet so boring

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Neil Ben Affleck

Marina Olga Kurylenko

Jane Rachel McAdams

Father Quintana Javier Bardem

Tatiana Tatiana Chiline

Anna Romina Mondello

Magnolia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Terence Malick. Rated R (for some sexuality/nudity). Running time: 113 minutes. Opening today at Landmark Century.

Updated: May 20, 2013 6:07AM

Is it possible for something to be breathtakingly beautiful but sometimes painfully dull?

I suppose you could insert your own supermodel joke here, but what about art? Is it sacrilege to enter the Church of Malick and get fidgety to the point of exasperation and yes, boredom, after an hour or so?

“To the Wonder” provides compelling evidence in the affirmative.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a review that doesn’t marvel at the intoxicatingly beautiful imagery in the latest film from Terrence Malick, the unprolific genius behind “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven” and “The Tree of Life.” This is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful films you’ll ever see. It’s also one of the more elusive (which of course is by design), and ultimately more than a little tedious.

Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki create one masterful, often dreamlike tableau after another, leaving us marveling at the splendors of the parks and streets of Paris as well as the wide-open fields of Oklahoma. You could freeze nearly any shot of this film, go to one of those websites that posterize any image and have a piece of art suitable for framing.

The problem is the shortage of insight and depth.

“To the Wonder” begins like a romanticized homage to a certain kind of European film where an impossibly beautiful couple has fallen in love with the kind of passion that would make even other movie couples blush. Wandering the postcard-perfect streets of Paris, taking a train ride to Normandy, exploring the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel, splashing along the beach on a cold gray day, it’s almost as if they’re the last two people on Earth.

Malick shoots his actors in the way we often see other people — not in full close-ups but almost out of the corner of the eye, just barely in our frame of focus and attention. It takes a while to realize that’s Ben Affleck playing a tall, handsome American named Neil, who has fallen in love with Marina (the luminous Olga Kurylenko), a Frenchwoman who is bursting with passion for Neil, to the point where she can’t help but skip like a child and dance pirouettes at every turn.

There is also a child, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), Marina’s daughter from a previous union. When Marina asks Tatiana if they should move to the United States with Neil (all of these early scenes are in French), Tatiana jumps for joy, thus becoming perhaps the first character in cinema history to express boundless enthusiasm at the prospect of moving from Paris to Oklahoma. (All due respect to Oklahoma.) Once they’re in the States, Tatiana is amazed at how clean the supermarkets are and how high the skies stretch. But it doesn’t take long for Neil to retreat further into his own brooding world, even as Marina continues to twirl about while her daughter tugs on Neil’s sleeve, urging him to marry her mother. One questions why Neil uprooted these lovely people and asked them to move thousands of miles from their home, just so he could start resenting them before all the boxes were unpacked.

Elsewhere on the Oklahoma front, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) is experiencing a crisis of faith and speaks to God as if mourning the departure of the love of his life, asking all sorts of questions in a one-sided conversation. Bardem gives a quietly heartbreaking performance, but it seems to be something from an altogether different movie, despite the parallels between the Roman Catholic priest’s dissipating passion and the fading intensity in the Neil-Marina relationship.

Rachel McAdams shows up as Jane, an All-American girl from Neil’s past and perhaps his future. Meanwhile, Marina considers solace in the arms of someone else as well. There’s also a courthouse marriage and a visit to a fertility doctor.

And fights. Nasty, furniture-destroying, screaming, devastating fights between Neil and Marina. What are they fighting about? We don’t know. We see, but we can’t actually hear what they’re saying. Like so much of “To the Wonder,” these scenes are filtered as if they’re memories, or as if we’ve just woken up and we can’t figure out what was real and what was a dream.

But these are mere snippets of plot development — small touch points of semi-realism lost amid all those gorgeous shots of nature, churches, parks, open skies (and fleeting images of the sculpted, semi-nude bodies of Neil and Marina, Neil and Jane).

Malick asks grand questions about spirituality, faith, father figures and the nature of romantic love. There is much beauty onscreen, from the faces of Ms. Kuylenko and Ms. McAdams to all those glorious nature shots, but there’s almost no feeling of empathy for anyone who enters the picture.

Our admiration for the beauty and the etherealness of it all gradually gives way to restlessness and then, ennui. We should not be exiting a Terrence Malick film with a shrug, but there it is.

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