I loved Terrence Malick‘s Badlands (1973) and The Thin Red Line (1998), but as beautiful as To The Wonder (2012) is to look at, this exploration of faith is a little disappointing. Apparently quite a few scenes and characters were cut from the film, and I can’t help but think whether this might have improved the story if more of the narrative had been kept.
Neil (Ben Affleck) meets Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in France and they fall in love. The pair visit Mont Saint-Michel where they share furtive glances. They walk together, around the cloisters and out on the beach beneath the island abbey. They hug. Marina twirls. They kiss. They watch the tide come in. They hug some more. Back in Paris, Marina’s daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) joins them. They all walk together through the Parisian streets and twirl under trees. There are hugs. Kisses. Marina and Neil share furtive glances. Tatiana twirls. Marina and Neil glance some more. They look at the scenery. Fade to… Oklahoma where Marina and Tatiana have accompanied Neil back to his home. They all walk together through golden fields, identifying wildflowers, staring at the sunset. Marina twirls. Neil and her kiss. More furtive glances. Hugs. Flashbacks. Some fighting.
Meanwhile the local Catholic priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) is having a crisis with his faith. We learn of this through his voiceover. He preaches without passion and walks through the town, visiting the people of his parish. Often he walks away before they can reach out to him. He walks some more. Marina attends his service. Father Quintana ministers to prisoners, performs at weddings and pays home visits. But all the time, we hear how he struggles with the weight of his vocation.
When Marina’s visa expires, she and Tatiana return to Paris. Neil gets back to work, taking samples of pollution at work sites. Neil re-connects with Jane (Rachel McAdams). He visits her ranch. They feed horses and walk together through fields of windswept grass. There are furtive glances. They hug. Jane twirls. They sneak glances at each other WHILE A HERD OF BISON GRAZE RIGHT NEXT TO THEM (!). They glance at each other some more. They look out across the open plains. They hug. They kiss. They glance some more.
Marina is unhappy in Paris. She looks furtively out the window. She walks the streets alone. She calls Neil. He breaks it off with Jane. There is fighting. Furtive glances. Marina comes back to Oklahoma, Tatiana stays with her father. Marina and Neil get married. Marina twirls. They hug. Kiss. Walk together in the local streets. Marina walks past Father Quintana. Neil takes samples. Marina walks. There is fighting. Faith in love is questioned.
By the end, I felt like I had sat through a two-hour advertisement for French perfume. Or Spanish, in keeping with the two languages spoken in voiceover. Women with French-braided hair twirling through windswept fields, all bathed in a glorious golden light. Rugged men. A handful of words spoken. Furtive glances. Beautiful people captured with beautiful cinematography. Subtitles. Long shots. And did I mention the furtive glances?
Bardem has a great presence as the priest and I longed to see more of him in this picture. Kurylenko and Affleck are good together as the loved-up couple but without much story, left me wanting more. To The Wonder is a visual splendour in the windswept grass. Unfortunately it’s a very slow, repetitive, splendour that had me wondering about how close the Bison herd actually were to Neil and Jane (and the possibility for a stampede), rather than caring about any of the characters’ dilemmas.
I glanced furtively at my choc top. Twirled it around. Mused to myself about the heavy chocolate coating… Then I chomped down. And chomped again. The tiramisu flavour was subtle but, my faith in the choc top never wavered.