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Saturday, 9 July 2011

Film Review: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life, which I saw last night in Kilburn, is Terence Malick's fifth feature-length film - in his late 60s, he has just wrapped up filming a sixth.  As most film followers are aware, he is a cult director of genius, whose latest won the top prize at Cannes this year.  His style, which is entirely original, and influential, features jump-cuts, reveries, meditations, lots of voice over, rural Americana and childhood themes, nature shots, and a lyrical sense of the world as a place of peril and wonder, always about to lapse from Eden.  The Tree of Life left many in my British audience giggling last evening, at its end - and no doubt it feels very long.  The film is semi-plotless.  Instead, it deals with the biggest themes imaginable - literally, Genesis, or the creation of life, from the Big Bang, through to the formation of Earth, to the first life, death of the dinosaurs, and culminates in Texas, in 2010 or thereabouts, as a rich man looks back upon his early childhood in the late 50s and early 60s in Waco Texas; and reflects upon the death of his musically-gifted brother, presumably in Viet Nam.  We never see any depictions of warfare (or sexuality) - instead, the film emphasises the smallest moments and gestures - hands brushing against hands, looking at light, rain drops, running, climbing trees, glimpses, glances, small lessons handed down - and in almost every scene the sun is setting or rising.  Filmed mostly at "The Golden Hour" it is the most achingly beautiful film ever made by an American about childhood, and must bear comparison to the work that Twain did on the subject.  However, it is also one of the five most ambitious American films ever, if once includes Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Apocalypse Now.  The film is insanely vast in canvass - Miltonic, sublime.  It is not for the secular - for it is everywhere asking for God (literally) but also noting "His" absence.  To judge it by normal standards would be futile - it has no narrative pleasures, and though there is much suspense, little pay-off in the usual sense.  The scenes near the end are extraordinarily moving, but then the film ends suddenly, and little has been explained. How can it be?  Life is inexplicable, and always happening.  The film's central spoken messages refer to Love, Nature, Grace - and show the struggle between a patriarchal instinct (Brad Pitt, never better, as the father who can play the organ, is an inventor, and a pilot), and the mother, who floats, gently, above things, heals, plays, and protects.  Very few movies are likely to provoke yawns and cheers of joy quite as much as this.  But I am better for having seen it.
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