If impressionistic filmmaking ever gets a patron saint, his name might be Terrence Malick. Sparse dialogue, nonlinear narratives, and visually breathtaking scenes are Malick’s calling cards. He often uses them to great effect, as in The Tree of Life, which won over religious and secular audiences alike.
To the Wonder also has strong religious imagery and stunning visuals, but the film’s underdeveloped, often sterile relationships undercut Malick’s examination of romantic love and its connection to divine love, as does the fleeting nudity that earns this film an R rating.
The film’s thin narrative depicts an American soil expert (Ben Affleck) vacationing in France who falls in love with a beautiful European woman (Olga Kurylenko) and brings her and her young daughter (Tatiana Chiline) back to Oklahoma to live with him. Also living in their small community is a Spanish priest (Javier Bardem) who has lost his connection to God, his joy, and is striving to find it again.
Because the film’s dialogue is so sparse, Malick relies on the expressiveness of his actors, and for the most part, they deliver. Kurylenko emanates patient, playful, sacrificial love, along with quiet anguish over where the relationship might be going. The sullen weight in Bardem’s otherwise stoic face prompts an elderly parishioner to tell him she will pray that he receives the gift of joy. In 10-15 minutes of screen time, Rachel McAdams gives perhaps one of the most impressive performances of her career as an old flame of Affleck’s character. Her vulnerable, lonely visage, eager for joy, reflects best the longing and searching all three of these characters experience.
The weak link is Affleck, who is hardly the most expressive actor, even when he has dialogue. Armed with only a few lines, he is even less expressive than usual, making it difficult to view the romantic devotion of these two female characters for him as anything but pathetic. A little more something from Affleck would have made Malick’s efforts to illustrate how romantic and divine love can be elusive more believable.