FILM: The Tree of Life

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IF a film-maker ever warranted the term auteur, meaning an artist of rare imagination who exercises complete control over their creative visions, it’s the mercurial Terrence Malick.

In a career spanning almost four decades, the Illinois-born film-maker has directed just five films, which have all been nominated for or won cinema’s glittering prizes including the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Golden Bear from Berlin.

Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Malick doesn’t feel any pressure to court adulation.

He hasn’t given an official media interview since the release of his startling 1973 debut Badlands and with a 20-year hiatus between his second film Days Of Heaven and the 1998 wartime drama The Thin Red Line, nor does he allow film studios to bully him into action.

In a business that churns out mediocre fare to satisfy the demand of popcorn-munching, multiplex audiences, Malick is a delicious anomaly.

If his 2005 historical drama The New World starring Colin Farrell fell short of lofty expectations, his latest impressionistic ode to human experience is a visually and aurally arresting triumph.

Threaded with soothing and poetic sequences of the natural world, The Tree Of Life is a film of long, haunting silences and apparent inactivity that glimpses fragments of Earth’s turbulent history.

A kaleidoscope of images explores the savagery and fragility of our world, from breathing footage of an erupting volcano to a dinosaur nervously walking around a forest.

For the first time, Malick employs digital effects to imagine the formation of the universe and the appearance of single-celled life forms in the Proterozoic period.

A meteor strike on Earth sends devastating ripples across the surface of the planet, segueing into a child escaping from a submerged room, a metaphor for the birth of baby Jack in the 1950s Midwest.

The camera stays close to young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his brothers RL (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan) as they suffer at the hands of their authoritarian father, Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt).

“Your mother’s naive. It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world,” the patriarch warns his boys, who naturally gravitate towards the compassionate and giving Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain).

Meanwhile, in the present day, grown-up architect Jack (Sean Penn) feels disconnected from the jungle of cold, metallic skyscrapers that are now his home.

The Tree Of Life is unmistakably the work of Malick, eschewing a conventional narrative to conjure stunning images that linger in the memory.

Pitt chews on and spits out his traditional nice guy image to portray a disciplinarian who practices bitterly tough love, while McCracken, Eppler and Sheridan, newcomers from Texas with no previous acting experience, light up the screen.

The soundtrack booms and soars to elegant compositions by John Tavener, Mahler, Berlioz, Holst, and Mozart, reaching a crescendo with Brahms’s moving Symphony No 4.

“The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by,” whispers Mrs O’Brien in voiceover.

We’re very happy to fall in love with Malick’s opus.

By Damon Smith.

Released: July 8 (UK & Ireland) (12A, 138 mins)

NO SWEARING, NO SEX, VIOLENCE, RATING: 8.5/10