THE BLOG
13/07/2011 09:33 BST | Updated 12/09/2011 06:12 BST

The Tree of Life

I recently watched Terrence Malick's latest, in film fan mode rather than professionally. The film has already set rivers of ink in motion, and it's a foolhardy venture to comment after just one viewing. I'm looking forward to the DVD already.

I recently watched Terrence Malick's latest, in film fan mode rather than professionally. The film has already set rivers of ink in motion, and it's a foolhardy venture to comment after just one viewing. I'm looking forward to the DVD already.

At the heart of the film is one of the most sustained evocations of childhood one could wish to see. It's not Proust: there's no goodnight kiss, little concept formation, no humour or wit and little savour. And yet, as several American critics have testified, the whole treatment compels identification. This happened to me! The glitter of the swimming pool; the tension and eruption at mealtimes; the enthusiastic, bemused dogs;the numinous places in the house, on the lawn, by the river. The boredom, the frustration, the lack of context. Parental love and guidance, brotherly venturing and companionship, the organ and sermons in church, the mystery of neighbours and strangers. Never mind that I grew up in Basingstoke, not Waco: these felt like parts of my life.

And the camera all the while twists and turns, exchanging a child's point of view for a tree's... or an angel's.

But how does it all fit together? There's the present day Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn) working at, and distracted from, architecture in his city skyscraper. There's the cosmic sequence of astrophysics, microbiology and universal evolution which splits the film apart after the news comes that Jack's brother has been killed, age 19. There are the hushed voiceovers, questioning God's will with agonized timidity. And there is the apparently redemptive ending, which I can't make sense of without seeing again.

Some reviewers have seen the cosmic sequence as amplifying rather than assuaging the grief, as affirming on the largest as well as the smallest scale that God gives and takes away. Others say that Malick is once again enacting his founding myth, that of the fall from the Garden of Eden.

My own contribution is that there are two holisms at work, those of Nature and Technology. In the present, Sean Penn is imprisoned in the Technology of walkways, meeting rooms and elevators, as his father was in an industrial job which poisoned his musical gifts and calling. But the holism of Nature...of trees and rivers, tender predators, unbidden butterflies...provides another context, and one where Caring is able to transcend itself into Redemption through Grace.

It's going to take me a while to work this up and work it out. All help gratefully received!