Dir. Terrence Malick, US, 2005, 150 mins approx
Cast: Colin Farrell, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer,
Christian Bale, August Schellenberg, Wes Studi, David Thewlis
(Note: This review refers to a longer version of the film. Prior to the UK cinema release, some footage was edited from this version and the running time is now approximately 135 mins).
The arrival of a new film by Terence Malick is a major event for film lovers, as the director resembles a filmmaker in the Stanley Kubrick vein: a talented, reclusive filmmaker whose film output is infrequent, but individualistic. Even though Malick has made just four films over a thirty-odd year career, he is regarded as one of America’s major directors. Emerging in the Easy Riders/Raging Bulls era of Hollywood filmmaking, but not counted as a ‘Movie Brat’ in the Coppola, Spielberg or De Palma vein, Malick ensured himself a place in filmmaking history with his debut feature, Badlands (1973), a low key, lovers-on-the-run road movie, featuring Martin Sheen as a laconic killer and Sissy Spacek as his blank-faced girlfriend. Badlands is still ranked as one of the best American films of the 70s, and it has influenced a number of films since, most noticeably True Romance (1993), with which it shares a similar premise, voiceover and music score.
Malick’s followed up Badlands with Days of Heaven (1978), a gorgeously shot tale starring Richard Gere that was famously filmed, for much of its time, at magic hour. Days of Heaven showed that Malick could make a small-scale character drama on a large canvas in a way that was visually stunning, and it established him as one of the most distinctive filmmakers of the 1970s. However, Malick, like his 1970s filmmaking contemporary George Lucas, didn’t make another film for years, until The Thin Red Line in 1998. Thankfully, there hasn’t been a twenty year wait for Malick’s next film, and interestingly, The New World shares a number of similarities with The Thin Red Line. Both films are intimate character pieces played out in a beautiful, idyllic landscape, with the characters’ voiceovers acting as internal monologues that express feelings that they cannot say out loud.
Set in the 1600s, The New World tells the story of John Smith (Colin Farrell), an imprisoned soldier who arrives at Virginia, the new world of the title, on board a European ship commanded by Christopher Plummer’s Captain. Freed by the Captain so that he can help the Europeans settle on this newly discovered land, Smith helps the crew but soon runs into the Native Americans who live on this part of the land. The natives are suspicious of these newly arrived Europeans, and while on an expedition, Smith is ambushed and captured by a tribe of Native Americans, and brought before the chief, Powhatan (August Schellenberg). However, Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), the daughter of the Powhatan, convinces her father to spare Smith's life. Pocahontas is a precocious and playful young woman who is intrigued by Smith. Smith soon learns about the Native American way of life and comes to appreciate the new people he finds himself amongst. In addition to this, he spends a lot of time with Pocahontas and grows fond of her, and she returns his affection. When Smith is returned to the Europeans by the natives, he sees that his fellow crew members have built a permanent settlement and intend to stay in this new world, even though their encampment is poorly organised and the inhabitants are starving. Angered by the Europeans’ decision to stay, the natives attack the settlement, and the love that blossomed between Smith and Pocahontas threatens to be torn apart by circumstances beyond their control.
Although this brief synopsis makes The New World sound like a melodramatic love story, nothing could be further from the truth. The film uses the romance between Smith and Pocahontas – and later, her life among the Europeans, including John Rolfe (Christian Bale) – to examine the differences and similarities between the European settlers and the Native Americans. Both sides are shown to be intelligent, inquisitive people, but many among the Native American tribe and a number of Europeans are intolerant and violent when it comes to interacting with another culture. Many people on both sides choose to stick their own set of rigid codes and laws, instead of attempting to understand other people and trying to find a harmonious way to live and work together, as Smith and Pocahontas come to do. Smith and Pocahontas connect on a more personal level, and this intimacy leads to a mutual respect and a deep understanding of each other, which helps them to forge a bridge between the two cultures. Just as Smith does not want to conquer or rule over the Native Americans who live in the new world, so Pocahontas does not want to just drive away the settlers without finding out more about them.
Smith is moved by the simplicity and honesty of the Native Americans, who do not have such selfish concerns as the Europeans, and who aren’t as destructive towards the natural environment. Yet the tribe can also be dogmatic, as when Powhatan coldly disowns and banishes Pocahontas when he discovers that she has helped Smith and other Europeans at the settlers’ compound. And although the Europeans cannot live in harmony with their environment, they are not dismissive of Pocahontas, or condescending towards her. Even though The New World seems to focus on Smith, there is a gradual shift from Smith’s view of events to Pocahontas’ perspective, and we follow her story for the latter part of the film.
The New World, like The Thin Red Line, features many familiar faces and famous actors in both small and large roles. However, some people may be disappointed to see that a number of them barely have any screen time. Perhaps these actors were so eager to work with a director of Malick’s reputation that they took on any part, however small. Or they may have had more screen time, but their scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. So, even though actors like Jonathan Pryce, Ben Chaplin, Noah Taylor and John Savage feature in the film, some of them barely utter a word, if they speak at all. Regardless, this doesn’t adversely affect the resulting film and all of the actors are excellent. Farrell and Kilcher are particularly good, with both actors subtly conveying the excitement of discovering another world that’s completely different to their own, the thrill of meeting and falling in love with someone who understands you intuitively, and then the sorrow when this love is threatened by external circumstances.
Although The New World may lack the narrative urgency and economy of a more tightly focused film like Badlands, Malick’s wanderings around the landscapes of the film reflect both Smith’s and Pocahontas’ curiosity about their world, and the people who live in it. The film is beautifully shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, who, along with Production Designer Jack Fisk (who has worked on all of Malick’s films), brings this fascinating story vividly to life. Malick’s film may be dismissed by some as a series of stunningly photographed vistas that hold little substance or significance, but The New World, like his similarly shot and structured version of The Thin Red Line, is a film that focuses on a small group of characters and paints their story on an epic canvas, in a similar way to the David Lean films of the late 1950s and 1960s. The New World is also significantly different from many other historical epics, and ultimately, it’s recognisably a Terrence Malick film.
© Martyn Bamber, January 2006
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