The New World — Movie Review

The New World photophoto courtesy New Line Cinema

Terrence Malick and I have history. As a teenage film buff, I was excited when Malick, director of the classic spree killer flick Badlands, came out from whatever rock he was hiding under to direct The Thin Red Line, which promised to be an art house war movie. Snobby and violent, could you go wrong?

The New World poster

The New World
(New Line Cinema)
Rated: PG-13
starstarstarstar (out of 4)
Official Site

Yes: three hours of impressive Australian scenery and poetic voiceovers, but not much else. Narrative was thrown right out the window as one scene haphazardly ran into the next. Even though the voiceovers clued me in on their internal monologues, the characters themselves were sparsely drawn, sometimes one dimensional. There were powerful scenes, but on the whole the movie fell flat. Malick���s lost it after 20 years without making a film, I thought.

So I was wary when I heard the buzz surrounding The New World, Malick���s take on the founding of Jamestown and the legend of Pocahontas and John Smith. But my fears of a Thin Red repeat are completely off-mark, as here Malick weaves a tapestry thick with depth and symbolism around a strong narrative and characters that jump off the screen, with the help of a fantastic young talent as Pocahontas. The New World is about discovery, internal and external, and easily one of the best films of 2005.

As we learned in American history class, shortly after the founding of Jamestown, Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) is sent to see the native’s big chief to talk about trading and, in a thrilling sequence, is saved from execution by Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher). Thus starts their courtship, as Smith teaches Pocahontas English and English ways while idealizing the communal and simple living of ���the naturals.��� He seeks redemption, a new self in this new world, through his love of Pocahontas, full of life and spirit, and she falls for the mysterious yet passionate foreigner as well.

Of course complications arise: Jamestown falls into squalor due to illness and petty power plays, while relations with the naturals go to hell and suddenly Smith is fighting the people of the woman he loves. And that���s really only the first half; for all the lack of plot in The Thin Red Line, Malick never runs out of story here.

Farrell almost always looks perplexed, and for most of the movie I swear he���s constipated. His flat delivery is unimpressive, but he looks the part ��� the grizzled veteran with the tangled beard and unruly hair (wig, whatever), and the constipation is perfect for a character that wears his internal conflict as an overcoat. This is good type-casting.

He���s completely outshined, though, by the rookie Kilcher (this would be her second film after The Grinch), who holds the second half of the movie up nearly by herself. In a highly demanding role for such a young actress (14 when the movie was shot!), Kilcher���s transformation from playful Indian princess to colonial wife is fleshed out superbly ��� joy, pain, this girl doesn���t show it, she lives it. Christian Bale gets shortchanged as John Rolfe, the other John who eventually marries Pocahontas, but makes the most of the little character he���s given.

Malick���s films show his love for nature, and his contrasting imagery works exceedingly well here ��� the chest-high grass of the untamed Virginia landscapes and swamps is a far cry from the quaint British gardens and rigid architecture, though both are captured brilliantly. His use of space adds volumes to the love affair, making dialogue unnecessary for long sequences. And the violence is punchy, as Malick quickly cuts to serene images during battle scenes causing them to be all the more jarring and effective.

But I can���t figure out why Malick relies on voiceovers to give speech to his characters��� inner thoughts when his clever cross-cutting and juxtaposition of images makes the technique superfluous. The actors prove themselves perfectly capable of conveying the sometimes obvious sentiments thrown in the voiceover. Besides, it distracts from James Horner���s luscious score.

While the pacing may seem sluggish (the plot gets a bit convoluted in the middle, but hey, it���s history), it���s Malick���s camera that keeps your interest, capturing the world we know with such magic as to make even the dullest stone romantic. He���s able to inspire the awe needed to make the world new for us as well. Combined with its classic story and dynamite young talent, The New World is a stunning piece of work and a return to form for the auteur.

STARRING: Colin Farrell, Q’Orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, August Schellenberg, Wes Studi, David Thewlis, and Yorick van Wageningen
GENRE(S): Adventure, Drama
WRITTEN BY: Terrence Malick
DIRECTED BY: Terrence Malick
RELEASE DATE: Theatrical: December 25, 2005
RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes, Color