In “To the Wonder,” a 2012 romance film, Ben Affleck plays a man who has the chance to reconnect with a long lost love. This is the last film that renowned film critic Roger Ebert reviewed before his death in 2013.
Ben Affleck’s character, Neil, is introduced while on a dream vacation on a beautiful French island called Mont St. Michael. The film earns its title because Mont St. Michael is referred to by the French as The Wonder of the Western World. Neil is madly in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), who is currently in exile from her home in the Ukraine. They share a new and passionate love, but deep down Neil feels as if something is missing. He remains unsure of exactly what that thing is until he reconnects with his childhood sweetheart Jane. Jane (Rachel McAdams) is a vivacious reminder to Neil of just how simple and carefree life once was.
Neil’s relationship with Marina turns out to be equal parts love affair and rescue mission. Marina was exiled from the Ukraine with her young daughter. The mother and child wound up in the heart of Paris with nowhere to go and no one to turn to, until Marina married a hard-hearted Frenchman. He left her after only a couple of years of marriage, and Marina and her daughter were even worse than before. In her most desperate moment, she connected with Neil, an American visiting Paris, and let him take her to America in a whirlwind romance.
Neil finds himself in the role of father and husband and, at first, he is happy to fill both roles. However, as his new love begins to grow distant and cold, the couple drifts apart and Neil’s doubts set in. He begins to wonder whether or not their love is strong enough to withstand the distance between them and, for the first time, questions his resolve to stay committed to Marina. Tensions grow when the couple moves back to Neil’s hometown in Oklahoma, where he takes a job as an environmental inspector.
The small Oklahoma town is based around the smelting industry. The majority of the town’s residents get their sustenance through the local smelting mill, which Neil soon discovers is the source of dangerous pollution in the area. In fact, if mill practices aren’t changed, the environmental damage may soon be irreversible. Neil must struggle to get the hometown that he abandoned to trust him with the source of the livelihood while trying to decide whether or not he even wants to fight for his relationship. It is during the midst of this conflict that Marina takes her daughter back to Paris and Neil reconnects with Jane.
Neil soon discovers that his love with Jane is a much simpler thing than his love with Marina. However, as with most films by director Terrence Malick, nothing in “To the Wonder” is quite black or white. Neil connects deeply with Jane, but he is soon reminded that his connection with Marina is just as deep and more complex. He is ready to move on with his new affair when he discovers that Marina needs to be rescued again, and he must look deep inside himself to determine whether he has the will or the strength to be her savior once again. Along the way, he discovers that his love and commitment to Marina, although not as fresh and fun as his love for Jane, just may be what will save his soul.
Like Malick’s other films, “To the Wonder” is told in a nonlinear style, which presents the reader with a unique perspective on Neil’s life, almost like a stream of consciousness. The simplicity of the Oklahoma plains provides a poignant backdrop to Neil’s inner struggle to keep life simple as it once was. The events of the story act as an agent of change in Neil’s heart, pushing him to expand and mature his concept of love. At the beginning of the movie, as in the beginning of life, love is simple and easy. As things progress and Neil gains more life experience, both good and bad, he discovers that true love grows and becomes more complicated with time. Commitment and love are not separate entities in “To the Wonder,” and Affleck does a memorable job of representing the life of a man who must grow and change, often against his own will. Fans of Malick’s previous films, including “The Tree of Life,” will enjoy this latest addition to his portfolio. Affleck’s performance pulls together what runs the risk of being a disjointed storyline into a believable stream of consciousness peek into the extraordinary life of an ordinary man.