movie film review | chris tookey

Tree of Life

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  Tree of Life Review
Tookey's Rating
3 /10
Average Rating
7.50 /10
Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn
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Directed by: Terrence Malick
Written by: Terrence Malick

Released: 2011
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 138

Pompously poetic.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Terrence Malick’s epic The Tree of Life won the top prize, the Palme d’Or, at Cannes and arrives garlanded with 5-star reviews.

It is less accessible than the 67 year-old director’s previous films – Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World. That’s because it is self-consciously poetic, with virtually no story and little characterisation. It is from the Fotherington-Thomas school of film-making, the kind that spends an awful lot of time wondering at nature, without actually having anything revelatory to say about it. I must also warn you that Mr Malick has found God, which makes the proceedings heavily sanctimonious, unless you happen to be the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Such story as there is involves an American family that has lost one of its sons – how, we’re never allowed to know. Cue touchy-feely flashbacks, most of them shot in the magic hour (the one before dusk), to give mum (Jessica Chastain, pictured), dad (Brad Pitt) and three boys an elegiac, golden tinge.

The mother is pretty much an earthly angel, and her voice is heard mainly praying to God and generally existing in a state of grace. The father is more worldly but part God/ creator – he’s a frustrated musician and inventor – and part authoritarian judgmentalist, given to Gordon Brownian bouts of fury when his will is not obeyed.

Golden hits from 50s family life are intercut with shots of the eldest son, now grown-up and played by Sean Penn, roaming a modernist cityscape. Since this is an art-house movie, he doesn’t actually do anything - just stare into space, with an indeterminate expression that may reflect nostalgia, regret, love for his mother, contempt for his father, indigestion or none of the above. We just don’t know.

The most controversial aspect is a massive detour to the beginning of time, where we watch the creation of earth, the era of the dinosaurs and their destruction by a meteor. This gives the film a scale it otherwise wouldn’t have; but within the context of a modest family drama, it is a preposterous folie de grandeur. And there’s nothing here you won’t have seen previously, with narration by Professor Brian Cox, Kenneth Branagh or David Attenborough.

Towards the end, everyone from the picture – though not, sadly, the dinosaurs - congregates on a beach with hundreds of blank-faced extras and does a lot of smiley acting, while the choral soundtrack chants “Amen”. This is presumably meant to reflect reconciliation and acceptance of God’s will, though what has brought about that reconciliation or acceptance is anybody’s guess. Presumably, death played a part. The trouble is that, this late in the movie, you too may have lost the will to live.

It’s up to you whether you respond to The Tree of Life by letting it shed all over you. It seems to me that, if you’re going to lecture people at length about man’s insignificance, it’s a bad idea to be self-important about it.

There are beautiful, evocative images within the film. But, at 139 minutes, this is one Tree that needed severe pruning.

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