Considering that his last three films were an elliptical war epic, a retelling of one of the founding stories of America and a millennia-spanning chronicle of the warring halves of the human soul, it's hard not to view Terrence Malick's latest film (his sixth in a career moving comfortably into its fifth decade) as a little slight be comparison. After all, how can the problems of two people amount to more than a hill of beans when placed against the stunning grandeur of the infinite?
However, though The Tree of Life and The New World were films of scope and ambition, they were also ones with a keen and intimate focus on the inner lives of their characters, and what To The Wonder may lack in scale, it more than makes up for in intimacy. Through his typically lyrical and evocative style, Malick tells the story of Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a young French woman who meets and falls in love with Neil (Ben Affleck) an American who is staying in Paris. As their love blooms, Neil offers to take Marina and her daughter back with him to America, an opportunity that they eagerly seize upon. Once they are in America, however, things gradually begin to deteriorate as they feel isolated from the people around them, including Neil, and the three spiral outwards as a result.
Though the film's small-scale hearkens back to the earliest days of Malick's career, particularly his focus on insular relationships in Badlands and Days of Heaven, the mood and style are firmly indebted to his more recent work. Specifically, his use of voiceover for multiple characters as an outlet for his own philosophical musings on love, life and the search for meaning in a cold and introverted world. The latter aspect is embodied by the character of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest in the town that Neil and Martina move to from Paris. He exhibits a palpable sadness externally (at one point, Quintana is told by one of his flock that she plans to pray for him to experience joy) and internally he is wracked with doubt over his relationship to God, and the very question of whether or not He exists.
As someone who went to a number of Church of England schools and so was surrounded by a fair deal of religiosity as a child, I found the Quintana sections of the film incredibly powerful and affecting. They felt like a less bleak, more melancholy version of Winter Light, one of my favourite Bergman films and one of the greatest examinations of the struggle to believe in a higher purpose when faced with the crushing realities of everyday life. Bardem's performance is not especially showy - the character lives inside his own head so much that there are no opportunities for emoting - but he conveys the sadness and conflict with the smallest looks and he packs deep pools of emotion into his narration. He's fully convincing as a man humbled and confused by his conflicted belief, and he does brilliant work with a part which is sidelined for much of the story.
Quintana also embodies one of Malick's pet themes, and the one he explored most fully in The Tree of Life; the search for grace when confronted with the indifference of the world. Admittedly, Quintana isn't witness to the formative tragedy that coloured the childhood of that film's protagonist, but he is still faced with the day-to-day life of sacrifice that is the dominion of the religious man, and what little we see of his life is more than enough to suggest why he would have such doubts, as well as why he perseveres. Malick seems fairly ambivalent towards modernity (To The Wonder is especially notable as the first of his films to be set wholly in a contemporary setting) and spends much of the film finding 'wonder' in the beauty of nature, as he has with all of his films, while depicting modern technology with a painful sterility.
In that context, Quintana seems to be expressing an existential angst on Malick's part that has less to do with his specific faith than it does a deeply personal uncertainty about the world and the need to find beauty in it. It's perhaps not surprising that the film begins with Neil and Martina visiting an old castle and marveling at the strange beauty of nature around it, that their captivation with the world is mirrored by their captivation with each other, and that their relationship only starts to go downhill once they are surrounded by the deadening homogeneity of suburbia.
While it might be a minor Malick, that speaks more to the power of his other work than it does any inherent weakness in To The Wonder. It remains a profound and significant film from the master of the ephemeral; a deeply felt exploration of the soul and its place in an increasingly soulless world, filled with the type of quiet, breathtaking beauty that is only to be expected from him. Perhaps more of a haiku than a sonnet, but no less powerful for its relative smallness.