‘To The Wonder’ hits choppy water in Venice

To the Wonder,” Terrence Malick‘s second film in as many years, unspooled at the Venice filmfest Sunday. While critics found his meditation on marriage to be visually appealing, the lack of dialogue and structure left them wanting more from this three-time Oscar nominee. The picture, which does not have domestic distribution yet, will screen next week at the Toronto filmfest. 

Ben Affleck, who plays the central character — a man having a midlife crisis — has only a handful of lines with Olga Kurylenko, who is one of his loves, supplying a voiceover. Also on hand are Oscar champ Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”) as a priest in crisis and Rachel McAdams as a woman struggling with the loss of a child. Cut from the film were talents such as Oscar winner Rachel Weisz and nominee Jessica Chastain, who appeared in Malick’s last film “The Tree of Life.” 

Several of the reviewers made mention of the link between this film and that one, which contended for three Oscars last year (Best Picture, Director, Cinematography). Below, a sampling of their thoughts. 

Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter): “A severely impressionistic account of the ebbs and flows in the romantic life of a man so remote that he’s essentially a noncharacter in his own drama, this sometimes beautiful, dramatically inert evocation of remembered moments from two intense but ultimately unharmonious relationships takes the voice-over technique employed in sections of ‘The Tree of Life’ and runs with it for nearly the duration. However accomplished Malick’s technique might be in some ways, this mostly comes off, especially in the laborious second hour, as visual doodling without focused thematic goals.”

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Nancy Tartaglione (Deadline): “Olga Kurylenko is ‘Wonder’‘s central character who sets the scene talking about love in voice over as she and Affleck wander through Paris and on to Mont St. Michel – the ‘Wonder’ of the title. But the voice over isn’t used solely to set the scene, it’s almost the only dialogue device Malick uses throughout. Javier Bardem plays a disillusioned priest in the Midwest town where Kurylenko and Affleck’s characters set up house. A house that never has a lot of furniture, but a fair bit of frolicking and fighting. McAdams is a woman struggling after the loss of a child with whom Affleck takes up briefly. The storylines of the four characters are only vaguely intertwined. The film often employs circles and moving objects spinning in rounds – including ferris wheels and a rollercoaster – for symbolism.” 

Oliver Lyttleton (Indie Wire): Affleck (who’s in the film far more than he suggested – while we’re sure he has plenty of material on the cutting room, and the film has almost no dialogue, he’s front-and-center in the film), has the toughest role: Neil’s a cold figure, not unloving, but not someone terribly easy with intimacy. The actor fades into the background a little early on, but he’s terrific later in the film, with one near-heartbreaking moment of regret, and one shocking moment of sudden action lingering particularly in the mind. Former Bond girl Kurylenko, meanwhile, is a revelation. It’s arguably Marina’s film more than anyone else’s, starting and ending on her, and we suspect she gets the most screen time. The actress is luminous in the part, though, a somewhat silly, often child-like woman unable to get her lover to meet her halfway (she reminded us of Nora from Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House,’ curiously), and her heartbreaking turn should open a lot of doors for her. McAdams has the least to do of the principals, but is wonderfully haunted and sad in her brief appearances, while Bardem, as you’d probably expect, is the stand-out, able to depict the priest’s tumultuous soul simply with the way he walks. 


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