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To The Wonder / Cloud Atlas: Sunday Herald view

Once a Terrence Malick film was such a rarity that the anticipation of a new one was almost unbearable.

I feel a little calmer about To The Wonder. After all, The Tree Of Life was released just 18 months ago, and he has a couple more in the works. That said, this is still an event.

The subject is a topsy-turvy love affair and the emotions that may trouble any serious relationship – feelings of duty, fear of commitment, competing affections, the changing nature of one's love. If the theme is familiar, the handling is anything but. Malick's inimitable, poetic manner is at once elusive and powerfully inclusive; rather than merely observing the characters' tribulations, we're given so much space – magical space, almost – that we can't help but invest our own emotions in the experience.

The film opens with Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) very much in love in Paris, then on the Normandy island known locally as "the wonder". She is Ukrainian, with a young daughter; he takes them back to a rural town in Colorado, where he works as an environmental inspector.

As often with Malick's characters, we hear Marina's feelings in whispered voiceover. "You brought me out of the shadows," she says of her man. Yet Neil's emotional reticence soon throws her back into the dark. He seems to love her, but skulks around in silence, unable to commit to the marriage she needs to remain in America. Matters are further complicated when he starts an affair with an old school friend (Rachel McAdams). Neil's indecision is mirrored by the personal conflict of the local priest (Javier Bardem), who hasn't lost his faith in God, but himself – musing, as he conscientiously visits the poor and afflicted, that "my heart is cold".

Eschewing dialogue, Malick presents his characters through their private thoughts, and through gorgeous images and sequences – a cut from Neil playfully throwing Marina around the room to the swinging of a fairground attraction in the dusk; she cavorting through the fields; a huge herd of black-maned bulls congregating like bandits. There are more naturalistic scenes, too, as Neil and the priest's torments are observed in their interaction with the community (the stars mingling with non-acting locals).

The film's Achilles' heel is that of this quartet we are only offered the thoughts of three – Neil being as silent to us as he is to Marina. Perhaps Malick wanted us to feel her frustration. Yet this places an already challenging narrative one step too many from reach. For me, though, there is compensation aplenty in a story that is beautifully told and achingly sad.

In The Tree Of Life, Malick celebrated the interconnectedness of all forms of creation. Cloud Atlas only seeks to assert the connections between people, albeit across centuries and with a little reincarnation to help. But it doesn't come close to Malick's achievement.

Adapted from David Mitchell's Booker-nominated novel by the Wachowski siblings (of The Matrix fame) and the German Tom Tykwer, it presents six stories across 500 years and in different genres such as sci-fi, comedy, conspiracy thriller and romance. Its stars (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant) each perform a multitude of roles, often buried beneath absurdly heavy-handed make-up. It's three hours long. It's a bit of a mess.

The way to approach Cloud Atlas, if you remain intrigued, is to disregard the attempts at profundity and take along your sense of humour. Grant certainly did, when he signed up as a cannibal chief.

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