Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko's loved-up couple Neil and Marina ascend the steps of Mont Saint-Michel and head "to the Wonder" in the opening moments of Terrence Malick's latest film, an examination of love and faith that's even more abstract and impressionistic than his last offering The Tree of Life. It sets the tone perfectly as we see them dance, joke and frolic across France before heading off to start a new life in Neil's home state of Oklahoma with Marina's 10-year-old daughter in tow.
The course of true love does not run smoothly, however. Both Marina and her daughter struggle to adapt to life in the US (the latter returns to Paris swiftly to live with her father), while Neil is drawn to an old flame - Rachel McAdams's rancher Jane - when Marina's visa expires. Running parallel to this is the story of Javier Bardem's Father Quintana, a Catholic priest who's beginning to question his relationship with God.
Despite the star power of Affleck and McAdams, it's Quantum of Solace's Kurylenko who's the dominant force in To the Wonder. She narrates the story in breathy French voiceover, spinning and skipping across beaches, fields and supermarket aisles. Sissy Spacek's Holly spun batons in Malick's 1973 breakthrough Badlands, but Kurylenko is the filmmaker's twirliest female character of all, a Malick Pixie Dream Girl whose own crisis matters as much as that of her male counterpart's.
Affleck's character is called a man of few words by Marina, and it's a fitting description as he's a near-wordless presence in the film. Malick spins To the Wonder out as an extended mood piece - montages and gorgeous magic hour shots accompanied by soaring classical music. It's much like the Sean Penn segments in The Tree of Life, only spun out over an entire feature-length film. This approach may grate with some, and it teeters on the edge of Malick spoofery as hand-held cameras glide endlessly through wheat fields.
Despite the fact that To the Wonder bucks narrative convention, it's admirable how the film is able to conjure up deep pools of emotion and attachment to its characters. Still, you have to wonder (sorry!) if a different, less artistically indulgent and ponderous version of the film exists on the cutting room floor. Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet and Barry Pepper were all cut, pointing towards the film, at one time, being something much more accessible.
To the Wonder does not have the jaw-dropping awe of the universe-spanning Tree of Life, but it's an ambitious and fascinating work in its own right. Malick disciples will find something to enjoy here - although unlike its predecessor, don't expect it to break out from art house screens or hoover up major awards.