Grass waving, birds flocking and water rippling—those are stock shots in writer-director Terrence Malick’s latest film, “The New World,” which lays out the legendary story of Pocahontas, John Smith and John Rolfe with Malick’s usual lyricism. “World” opened Christmas Day in New York and Los Angeles. It opens in the rest of the country Jan. 13.
Malick, who has made only about four films in more than three decades (his last being the 1998 WWII drama “The Thin Red Line”), embraces the natural in his examination of the new world, generously piping in the wilderness and shooting in the real Virginia environment of his story.
“World” begins in 1607 as English settlers arrive on the eastern coast of this country, with its strange sounds and wonders—and natives. Coming in three ships, the audience immediately sees both sides of this episode, experiencing the landing from the perspective of both the Englishmen and the Powhatan tribe.
Underscoring the advent is the music of Richard Wagner, which swells and remains as the weird and wonderful envelope all involved in this first meeting of cultures. In fact, James Horner’s original score, combined with pieces from Wagner and Mozart, is absolutely terrific and helps you absorb Malick’s emotional punches.
There’s hardly any dialogue for a long while, the first lines coming after the English land and Capt. Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) orders John Smith (Colin Farrell) freed. Smith had been going to be hanged for insubordinate behavior on the voyage over, but Newport reasons the settlers will need all the help they can get in the new world. He’s right.
The settlers experience hardship from the beginning, and it falls to Smith, an experienced soldier, to lead an expedition upriver in search of more, which he finds in the person of Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher). Thus begins the real dramatic storyline, which dwells beneath Malick’s penchant for slight jump cuts, flash forwards, symbolic cutaways and similar techniques. Add to that psalm-like voice-overs by Pocahontas, Smith and Rolfe (Christian Bale), and you have a uniquely meditative film.
Malick’s cinematic poetry extends beyond his editing and narration and into actual shot composition, relying as he does on actual sunlight for set illumination, and framing characters in extreme low-angle shots against cloudy skies.
“The New World” is meant to be felt as much as seen—experienced as much as watched. It’s not so much storytelling as storyfeeling. This is Malick’s style, and it’s not for everyone. Many Middle Americans will be checking their watches the first time Smith and Pocahontas stare at each other in a series of deliberately extended shots.
But the more familiar dramatic arc remains, with Smith meeting and falling for Pocahontas, their relationship adding to cultural conflict, Smith’s eventual departure, and the arrival of Rolfe, who has his own appeal.
“World” does its fair share of romanticizing the other. For example, Smith says in his voice-over how the natives haven’t greed, envy, jealously, etc. among them. But this appears less a case of Malick buying into such a perspective and simply relaying it as part of Smith’s historical account.
By movie’s end, the beginning—when the ships arrive at what is to become Jamestown—really seems like a lifetime ago. That may be somewhat due to the two-and-a-half-hour running time, but it’s also partially due to Malick’s telling of an epic story that covers 1607 to 1616.
“The New World,” in terms of subject matter,” falls in with films like “1492,” “The Last of the Mohicans” or “Dances With Wolves.” But stylistically, it’s a singular creature that will attract some and repel others.
What everyone should find appealing, however, is the feature debut of Q’Orianka Kilcher, a remarkable 15-year-old actress who emotionally owns this movie. Her face holds a maturation beyond her years, and her allure—for Smith, Rolfe and modern-day audiences—is unmistakable.
“The New World” is “arty” filmmaking, which some like and others don’t. However, those willing to give it a chance will be rewarded with an emotional union to an American legend. And as the founding of Jamestown approaches its 400th anniversary, what exists of this history can slip beyond Malick’s memorably fractured frames and into the consciousness of New Worlders.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense battle sequences. Reviewer’s Note: Restraint marks the potentially more graphic parts of the story, with Malick opting to cut or fade before love in the form of sex or hate in the form of battle grabs too much of the screen.
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Cast: Pocahontas: Q’Orianka Kilcher; John Smith: Colin Farrell; John Rolfe: Christian Bale; Christopher Newport: Christopher Plummer.
The movie’s official Web site is here.