You used to wait decades for a Terrence Malick film. Now two come along almost at once. Less than two years after his 2011 Palme d’Or winner Tree of Life, the notoriously reclusive director has produced a new work, To the Wonder, and he apparently has another three films lined up in post-production. Yet his unusually speedy work rate doesn’t appear to be doing him – or us – any favours.
His new film displays all the familiar Malick touches – fragmentary narrative, impressionistic visuals, poetic voiceover – but this time the Malick magic is missing. Sure, there are lots of shots of characters wandering through ravishing landscapes at sunset, filmed by a gliding camera while classical music (Berlioz, Wagner, Rachmaninov, Gorecki and so forth) gestures towards rapture and transcendence on the soundtrack.
This time, however, Malick’s approach appears indulgent rather than revelatory. We certainly don’t learn very much about the film’s protagonist, played by Ben Affleck, a brooding American torn between two women – Olga Kurylenko’s French-Ukranian single mother and Rachel McAdams’ Oklahoma rancher – and wrestling with feelings of love and guilt, passion and duty. Meanwhile, at a tangent to this romantic triangle, Javier Bardem’s Catholic priest goes through a parallel crisis of faith.
All this agonising goes on with a bare minimum of dialogue exchanged between the main characters. They look great set against the backdrops Malick has chosen – Paris and Mont St Michel in France, Oklahoma’s grassy plains in the US – but their inner states are a mystery. Affleck mostly appears lost, while Kurylenko is left to waft around dreamily looking for all the world like a model in a Boden catalogue shoot.
In cinemas from Friday 22nd February.
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