With uncharacteristic speed, veteran director Terrence Malick has quietly delivered another hymn to nature that wonders about the existence of God, and the motivations of the human beings who drift in and out of the great arc of history. Arriving a mere 18 months after The Tree of Life, To the Wonder is a deal more earthbound than that film. It's a sensual, hypnotic and dreamy piece that sees the 69-year-old Malick closing in on the sense of divine Rapture that all of his work edges towards.
It is a lot like watching an impression of a more conventional film - we are given no sense of the passage of time or the thoughts of the players. Dialogue is snatched, fragmentary and non-sequiturial. Humans populate the vast spiritual and temporal canvas but they are an impressionistic, fragmentary presence, like mute figures in a Hopper painting.
Malick begins his story in the cineaste's heart home of Paris where Neil and Marina, a good-looking couple played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, bask in the glory of new romance. We see them visit Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy and play with Olga’s nine-year-old daughter in an autumnal city park. Affleck's extraordinary "second act" continues apace in his role as Neil, a strong, silent (then again, most people in Malick's recent movies are silent) and dependable American who soon takes Marina and her child back to his home in Oklahoma to settle.
It is Olga who sketches in the story with a breathy narration. She spends most of the movie skipping and dancing about like a ballerina bursting with contentment but in truth, she is a tiresome existentialist, an exacting bohemian who has no idea what she wants and sees everyone else as mere bit players in orbit around her.
The decent Neil finds himself drawn to Jane, an old sweetheart played with a slow-burning incandescence by Rachel McAdams. Malick's camera then turns to their love affair set against the vast backdrop of Oklahoma, with the lovers both dwarfed by nature and also communing with it in reverence as their bond grows. We also encounter a local priest, Father Quintana, who is played with great empathy by Javier Bardem. He is struggling with a crisis of faith and, ironically, given his non-temporal needs, he is the most fully-formed character in a movie full of half-glimpses, lingering shots, and shadows.
As ever with Malick, some people will sit back and let To the Wonder wash over them and later soak in as a beautiful meditation on life and the awesome beauty of our world; others will consider it over-long, pointless and listless. But Malick's themes of love, disconnection and chance are undeniable and spellbinding, even if his attitude to the conventions of narrative and dialogue can be frustrating.
Neil, Marina, Jane and the other characters we meet along the way are just transitory figures passing though history, vessels for the director's grand visual symphony of chance and chaos. This is beautifully made and a real visual feast. To the Wonder is a movie about nothing in particular but also a movie about everything that is truly important.