Magazine article The Spectator

Take the Plunge

Magazine article The Spectator

Take the Plunge

Article excerpt

The Tree of Life

12A, Nationwide

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is his fifth film in 38 years (what a lazybones! ) and travels way beyond what I can think about, or any of us can think about, which may be its point. How are we here? Why are we here? In what way do the 'how' and the 'why' connect, if they do? I know. Exhausting. And although people say you should not watch a Malick film as you do other films, that you should immerse yourself in it as if it were a meditative experience, I simply don't know how you are meant to accomplish this.

Are there evening classes? Self-help books?

But - and this is a big 'but', so pay attention - even though you have to work so devilishly hard at this, and work at it while Malick is probably still in bed (such a lazybones! ), and even though it is grandiose and humourless and preposterous it is also fantastically fresh, rich and fascinating.

Let's put it another way: two and a half hours of Terrence Malick goes by a lot quicker than 90 minutes of Larry Crowne, and I understood every word and frame of that. (Ditto Transformers 3 and Kung Fu Panda 2 and all the other interminable rubbish I have to sit through while checking my watch hasn't actually stopped, and cursing the day I was born. ) This film is fragmentary and not linear - wouldn't you be more surprised if it were? - and is partly a visual essay on the evolution of the universe (yes, really), partly a coming-of-age story, and partly a study of nature which, I think, gives us enough to be getting on with. You want more? OK, it's also a philosophical contemplation on religion. Happy now?

It all ripples out from Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn), an architect living amidst concrete edifices and skyscrapers and who is divorced, I suppose, from all things natural, or at least that's the way it seems. (How do you stop a mind straining to join the dots?

How? ) Jack is looking back to his childhood in 1950s Texas; a childhood spent with his two younger brothers, his father (Brad Pitt) and his mother (Jessica Chastain, so beautiful it's as if she's from another world). Mr O'Brien has his gentle, loving moments, but is also a stern disciplinarian given to bouts of violence, cruelty and bullying. Mrs O'Brien, while frustratingly passive, is also angelic, perhaps even saintly. …

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