The New World

December, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Terrence Malick

Starring:Colin Farrell, Q'Orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer, and Christian Bale

Writer/director Terrance Malick, (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) epitomizes the French concept of auteur- the notion that a great director’s style is so distinctive an audience can recognize its unique, highly individualized characteristics despite the inherently collaborative nature of filmmaking. Much of the movie literature in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s focused on this notion, using the life’s work of great American directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks as primary examples of the concept. In this, his 4th film, Malick once again demonstrates an uncanny ability to intertwine stunning presentations of nature with dreamy voice-over narrations from his characters, creating haunting scenes in which human lives seem to grow out of -- and become indistinguishable from - - their surroundings. At his best, the director performs this kind of cinematic alchemy so seamlessly he can mesmerize audiences with images so hauntingly beautiful they unmistakably carry his signature. Malick’s an auteur if ever there was one. If only that ability were enough to make an interesting film a worth seeing…

The New World represents Malick’s vision of the clash of cultures that occurred when England established its first settlement in Virginia, circa 1607. All the players familiar from high school history books are present; Captain John Smith, the scruffy career military man charged with bringing a small band of settlers through their first winter, Powhatan, the powerful Indian chief who controlled the Tidewater area in which the colony sought to establish itself and Pocahontas, Powhatan’s youngest child who interceded on Smith’s behalf with her father and then went on to marry an English settler and become sufficiently “civilized” to warrant presentation to the King of England before her death there at the age of 22. 

But these simple historical facts aren’t really central to Malick’s aim; it’s the motivations of the story’s highly idealized characters that interest him.  The New World spends nearly 2 and ½ hours visually ruminating about what drove America’s colonizers to totally destroy the childlike innocence of the Garden of Eden the director’s cameras so voluptuously display. Malack finds the motivations of his subjects muddled; unfortunately, his lavishly mounted depiction of them does little to penetrate that inscrutability.

Earlier this year, Charles Mann, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, published a book entitled 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Mann surveys recent archeological discoveries which 

suggest that the Native American cultures Spain and England conquered, (primarily with disease) were far more successful at meeting the material and social needs of their members than we’ve previously been lead to believe. Malick certainly agrees; his approach to these historical events serves as an elegy on “what might have been”, as seen through the eyes of a young Indian girl and the worldly adventurer who exploits her innocence on behalf of a European empire that would, in the name of progress, obliterate so much of the value that existed before its arrival. As Pocahontas painfully evolves from free-spirited native child to proper English wife and mother, Malick explores the price the conquerors extracted and the conquered paid, concluding that far too much was lost for what was gained. 

Whether you accept the main thrust of this premise or not, (and Malick surely does) a movie must still be dramatically effective if it’s to satisfactorily sell its interpretation of history. Yet despite the ravishing beauty of the director’s images and the incandescent performance of Q’Orianka Kilcher, (a 15 year-old newcomer) as Pocahontas, The New World is curiously turgid. Malick frequently repeats scenes, (often employing a darkened screen to separate them from each other) and lingers at dangerous length on aspects of his story which can’t justify his intense interest in them. There is great beauty on display here, but a good deal of artistic obsession too; genius he may be, but audiences can be forgiven for responding with a simple, “For God’s sakes man, get on with it”! 

Malick’s script, comprised of terse dialogue interspersed with long bouts of voice-over narrative, doesn’t provide much opportunity for the creation of vivid characters; Ms. Kilcher notwithstanding, there is little in the performances of Colin Farrell as Smith or Christian Bale as John Rolfe, (Pocahontas’ husband) to inspire interest, while the remainder of the film’s large cast is heard from so infrequently it’s difficult to get a read on just how Malick’s screenplay wants us to feel about of any of them.

However, few movies convey the precise sense of time, place and cultural artifact as this one; from native costumes to weapons of war to the brilliant facial makeup employed by tribal males, to the clothing of English settlers and their pitifully constructed settlement, the director’s eye for detail seduces as it illuminates the conditions under which the peoples of two radically different cultures sought to understand and deal with each other. If Malick’s lamentation on this Paradise Lost is overlong and often maddeningly opaque, it also stands as a remarkable visual achievement. 

The Verdict? For those with sufficient patience and a willingness to parse its tangential approach to the material, World has much to offer.       


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