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New films: life and death considered

01 March 2013

by Stephen Brown

To the Wonder: Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) and Neil (Ben Affleck)

To the Wonder: Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) and Neil (Ben Affleck)

TO THE WONDER  (Cert. 12A) is the latest film written and directed by Terrence Malick, a man of faith whose previous work includes Days of Heaven. This romantic drama is something of a change after The Tree of Life ( Arts, 22 July 2011), that contentious meditation on suffering.

An American would-be writer, Neil (Ben Affleck), meets a rather irritating Ukrainian free spirit, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), in Paris. Malick's favoured cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezkia's imagery truly comes into its own when they visit Mont St Michel, also known as The Wonder. Their love attains transcendental proportions amid the architectural glories of this Normandy island's place of pilgrimage and natural splendour.

Neil whisks Marina and her ten-year-old daughter back to Oklahoma. Well-intentioned as his vow of life-long commitment was on that holy island, both parties gradually learn, as subsequently voiced by Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), emotions come and go. Neil works as an environmental inspector. Marina feels trapped, and that life is slipping away.

Here in a nutshell is the film's conundrum: does one ultimately rely on feelings as life's guide, or is there a higher power at work, even in its seeming absence, which requires disciplined attention? The priest to whom Marina turns is asking a similar question of his vocation. In a film full of visual metaphors, someone cleaning the stained-glass windows to allow light in urges him to feel God's power out there in the world.

Neil reconnects with a previous sweetheart, Jane (Rachel McAdams), which in turn produces emotional conflict between his feelings of duty to one woman and attraction to another. He is also dealing with a smelting plant that is contaminating the local soil and water. In a nod to Antonioni's The Red Desert, Marina has metaphorically been transplant-ed to a country polluted by alien values.

Quintana reminds us that if we feel that our love has died, it is perhaps waiting to be transformed into something higher. The film suggests that eros should ultimately be swallowed up in agape, that unselfish theocentric love that Jesus demonstrated. In one of the few verbal expositions of Malick's outlook, Quintana asserts that it is agape that awakens "the divine presence which sleeps in each man and woman".

More words might have helped. Too often, an overpowering picture language swinging between Norman Rockwell's folksiness and Edward Hopper's tortured souls predominates. Beauty, alas, isn't quite enough to carry the weight of so profound a subject as the one that we are confronted with here.

YOU might think Gareth Malone's success motivating ordinary people to sing like angels is the inspiration for the film Song for Marion (Cert. PG). In fact, the director Paul Andrew Williams's screenplay was written six years ago. Awaiting the green light, he busied himself with other projects, notably the underrated thriller London to Brighton.

Admittedly, it is a well-worn plot, on both sides of the Atlantic, to throw unlikely performers together to enter a competition as underdogs. We would be disappointed if the outcome was not as hoped. What makes this particular contribution to the genre interesting, touching, and often funny is that Marion, sensitively played by Vanessa Redgrave, is dying. Attending practices of the choir OAPZ with eccentric pensioners belting out "Let's Talk About Sex" gives her hope and satisfaction.

The fly in the ointment is Arthur (Terence Stamp), Marion's husband: the Grumpy Old Man personified. And, although he is out of sorts with their son, there is no question that he loves his wife - and she Arthur, finding ways to handle rather than placate him. Claiming that the choir is too much of a strain (on him or her?), he is over-protective. The inevitable happens, but not before Marion has sung a solo to her husband.

The dying is merciful, and, while verbal references to God are minimal, we are visually brought back again and again to the church premises (St Francis's, Newcastle) as a place of divine presence. It becomes the locale where, by letting go, we allow (in Graham Greene's phrase) "the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God" to take over.

This tale of death and resurrection may well resonate with those who have witnessed the final stages of someone's life or ministered to loved ones left behind. Marion has sung her heart out, and now Arthur, son, and choir must find their own voices. How they do so is for me to know and for you to go and see.

The educational charity Damaris offers free resources built around clips from the film, including a glossy book and DVD, for groups.


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