The New World
Director : Terrence Malick
Screenplay : Terrence Malick
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Colin Farrell (John Smith), Q’Orianka Kilcher (Pocahontas), Christian Bale (John Rolfe), Christopher Plummer (Captain Christopher Newport), David Thewlis (Captain Edward Wingfield), Wes Studi (Opechancanough), Jamie Harris (Emery), Joe Inscoe (Ackley), Eddie Marsan (Edward), August Schellenberg (Powhatan)
Given that the gap between writer/director Terrence Malick’s second and third films, Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998), was a full two decades, the mere seven years between The Thin Red Line and his newest film, The New World, comes close to constituting a quick turnaround. Productivity has never been Malick’s strong suit (he’s only directed four films in 32 years), but each of his projects is anticipated with baited breath and high hopes that the innovative and resolutely independent auteur will produce a new masterpiece. Those who admire Malick tend to proclaim each of his films a stunning achievement, a proclamation that will surely be affixed to The New World, as well.
Arriving in theaters roughly 16 minutes shorter than when it premiered in December in New York and Los Angeles to qualify for Oscar nominations, The New World is an intriguing, but ultimately ponderous historical epic that is best appreciated for its fragments of stunning beauty and juxtaposition of tranquility and violence than for anything that might be termed “narrative” or “character development” or even a “coherent theme.” Malick’s affinity for the natural world and his disgust at humankind’s destruction of it has been one of his guiding thematic strands, and it is certainly present in The New World, although not nearly to the extent you would imagine given the fact that the film tells the story of the roots of Europe’s colonization of North America.
In essence, The New World is a retelling of the well-worn romanticized legend of the relationship between soldier-of-fortune John Smith (Colin Farrell) and the Powhatan princess Pocahontas (newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher) beginning with the founding of the Jamestown colony in 1607. The name “Pocahontas” is never once uttered in the film, most likely as a self-conscious indicator of Malick’s desire to separate his vision from all those that came before him, particularly Disney’s bloodless 1995 animated version. Malick deploys many of his signature devices, including a wandering camera that soaks in the lush, sun-dappled swampy wilderness of the land that would become Virginia, a minimal use of spoken dialogue, and a seemingly contradictory obsession with unnecessary inner monologues.
The use of inner monologues was one of the most problematic aspects of The Thin Red Line because they were so fundamentally disassociated from the characters who were meant to be speaking them (when that connection could be made). That is not the problem in The New World, as the inner voices of Smith, Pocahontas, and her eventual husband John Rolfe (Christian Bale) emanate clearly from their characters and their emotions. However, the monologues themselves are largely redundant, telling us in overly literate dialogue what is plainly clear in Malick’s imagery and in the actors’ performances. Looking at Pocahontas starring dreamily into Smith’s eyes, we really don’t need purplish inner prose to inform us of just how smitten she is, yet Malick somehow feels the need to push the point.
In other respects, The New World is an impressive film, particularly in its imagery and unexpected rhythms. The film’s opening scenes are among its best, as it gives us narrative information in often fragmented chunks that defy expectations, but still keeps the narrative coherent. It also establishes in strong terms Malick’s thematic preoccupation with “civilization,” and the portrait he paints of the Europeans and their desperate ways, riddled as they are with contradiction, selfishness, and betrayal, is frequently powerful. Visually, Malick adds to the film’s impact with unexpected transitions, such as violent moments like Smith angrily kicking over a chair that are suddenly devoid of sound, focusing us that much more intently on the physical action itself. In moments like this, you get an exhilarating sense of Malick’s undeniable bravura.
Unfortunately, when you try to bring everything together, it’s hard to tell what Malick is trying to get at. He eschews the typical conventions of the historical epic, favoring instead an elliptical, jumpy, and sometimes distanced view of the action, rather than a straight-ahead causal narrative. This is an interesting choice, but his approach doesn’t make his characters or story any more vibrant or memorable. For example, Pocahontas’ eventual travel to England to be paraded as an example of how the savage “naturals” could be anglicized has little or no thematic force beyond connecting the historical dots. While it is certainly refreshing to see a filmmaker of considerable talents approach an oft-told tale from a different perspective, Malick doesn’t manage to make the Pocahontas story any more meaningful or humane. It is just different.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 New Line Cinema