Phil on Film Index

Monday, January 30, 2006

Review - The New World

It has been seven years since Terrence Malick last blessed us with one of his unique cinematic visions. After his twenty year hiatus between 1978’s Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, this most enigmatic of American filmmakers is only now making his fourth film in over thirty years. However, what he lacks in quantity he more than makes up for in quality; Malick doesn’t make films often, but when he does they tend to be worth the wait.

The New World is Malick’s latest conundrum. On the surface the film is a retelling of the Pocahontas story, the tale of a young Indian girl who falls in love with Captain John Smith, one of the English settlers who arrives to establish a colony at Virginia in the 17th century. It doesn’t take very long though, for one to get the idea that the story is not alick’s main concern, and his latest film is yet another glorious meditation on man’s relationship with nature; less a ‘film’ in the traditional sense than a visual poem, a feast for the senses.
Like The Thin Red Line, Malick opens here on water, with a scene of serene Native Americans living in peace; the calm before the storm. Their attention is aroused by the sight of ships looming in the distance. One of these ships contains Capt. Smith (Colin Farrell), who is in chains and disgraced after making mutinous remarks. Farrell plays Smith as a brooding, sensitive man of few words - which makes him the perfect Malick hero.

The newcomers and ’the naturals’ - as Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) describes them - cohabit in harmony at first. The Indians are curious about their new visitors; they stalk about the English, touching their strange clothing and weapons, sniffing their unusual odour. Unlike his fellow settlers, Smith seems as interested in the natives as they are in him. His eyes fall upon a young girl who stands out from the crowd in terms of beauty and spirit. She is the daughter of the local chieftain. Her name is Pocahontas.

This may sound like the standard set-up to a traditional Hollywood historical romance, but Malick’s handling of this tale couldn’t be more unusual. Malick is a truly unique artist in American film. Many scenes in The New World unfold in silence, consisting of little more than the characters examining each other, or sitting in quiet contemplation. Malick will often spend minutes letting his camera drift across fields of grass, or come to rest on a flowing river. Despite the presence of many known actors (some in little more than brief, wordless appearances) the writer/director makes the natural world the true star of his film, with the characters’ fate appearing of secondary importance.

Malick and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki create some magical images here and, remarkably, do so shooting almost completely in natural light. The staggeringly beautiful visuals are complemented by James Horner’s inspired score, a blend of classical pieces with natural sounds and tribal music. This truly is a celebration of nature, and a lament for what mankind has lost. One of the overriding themes of Malick’s work has always been man’s relationship with the world around us and our systematic destruction of the Eden we were presented with. After Smith and Pocahontas’ relationship is torn asunder by the war between their tribes, Malick’s elliptical editing juxtaposes Smith’s torment with earlier scenes of his contentment in the Indian world, a world of innocence and purity which has been lost forever.

The New World could have easily been little more than a gorgeous shell, a series of beautiful images which tell us nothing, but Malick’s intelligence and seriousness ensures that the film has substance as well as style. One of the most extraordinary things about The New World is its incredible sense of period. Malick is not satisfied with his film depicting the year 1607, he transports us back to that time, making The New World seem like lost footage somehow recorded in a time before film even existed. Through the exquisite period detail, wholly convincing performances, and Malick’s abiding fascination with rituals and culture, we are fully immersed in the time the film occurs in. As Smith makes the first tentative steps towards communicating with Pocahontas, we watch spellbound, truly convinced that we are watching the first meeting between two vastly different races.

Malick doesn’t lose sight of the central love story which anchors his film. The early scenes between Smith and Pocahontas are tender and moving. He teaches her the English words for the things around her, she draws him into the Indian world. As their love grows it feels organic and true. After Smith departs, Pocahontas marries another Englishman, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), and is taken home to England where her exotic manner delights royal society. Malick shoots 17th century England as if it was a world as far removed from our own as Pocahontas’ native land. Her and her Indian companions gaze upon the carefully sculpted trees and beautifully manicured lawns; she has come to a land where nature has been tamed and imprisoned.

The role of Pocahontas would be a demanding one for any actress and Malick has unearthed a star in 15 year-old Q'Orianka Kilcher. This young actress has an astounding emotional range and moves between inquisitiveness and awe, joy and despair, with graceful ease. As Smith, Farrell gives one of his most impressive displays yet, mining real emotional value out of his love that cannot be. There are wonderful supporting turns from Christopher Plummer and David Thewlis, and Christian Bale’s appearance in the final third helps to give the film a touching climax.

The New World is a truly astonishing work of art. Malick’s filmmaking language is unlike anything else in contemporary cinema and his latest film is a breathtakingly imaginative, visionary and beautiful achievement which took my breath away. Already its haunting images are swimming in my mind and enticing me to view it again. It will undeniably prove a test for many viewers who are unused to adjusting their taste to such an idiosyncratic piece of work; but anyone viewing The New World with patience and an open mind will surely recognise it as a masterpiece.