I cannot in good conscience recommend The New World. Still, I have to admit that I admired this film more than a number I have recommended.
Calling The New World a noble failure or a grand folly would be the easy way out of explaining my high regard for Terrence Malick’s film on the story of Pocahontas (14-year-old newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher) and Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell). But describing the film that way would not really be true, even though it’s certainly a failure and a folly so far as its box-office prospects are concerned. Yet I’m not sure that it’s nearly that far off the mark artistically.
Whoever decided it would be a good idea to pull the film at the last minute so that it could be cut by 17 minutes (Malick was cited in press releases, but that’s hardly conclusive) fell prey to the illusion that it’s possible to take an inherently slow movie and speed it up by cutting it. In fact, all this does is make for a shorter slow movie. That’s certainly the case here.
Malick’s film isn’t and never will be “action-packed.” Frankly, what action scenes the movie does contain prove that Malick either isn’t interested in action or, quite simply, can’t direct it. The battle scenes are clunky, disorganized and uninvolving, and never feel like anything other than dress extras lamely hacking away at each other. To put it succinctly, the action scenes pretty much blow. But action is not the point of this film, which is hardly a pilgrims and Indians story.
Rather, The New World is an ambitious attempt to get past the schoolbook story to something far more complex. On the surface, this might sound like another in the long line of de-mythification movies, such as Troy, King Arthur and Tristan + Isolde — but Malick’s film is something else, an attempt at de-simplifying, something that American history (especially on the school level) tends to specialize in avoiding.
What Malick has done is try to make an historical film that doesn’t feel like an historical film. In short, he’s tried to make it all fresh and immediate. The characters act as if they are what they would have been in their own minds — modern people. In other words, they don’t act as if they’re historical characters.
Yet it’s the film’s historical perspective (Malick’s approach to the work as filmmaking) that is done sometimes with encouraging subtlety. This is almost immediately apparent when the English ships sight America and the soundtrack swells with the opening of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold (the piece serves as a kind leitmotiv throughout the film), which, if you know your Ring cycle, directly precedes the dwarf Alberich arriving on the scene and stealing the gold from the Rhine Maidens.
This works as Malick’s foreshadowing of what will happen to the New World and its original inhabitants (here called “the naturals” by the English). However, it also works on the power of its sound — flowing, grinding, swirling, building — which is meant to musically evoke the image of the Rhine River. Water flowing becomes a key image in the film — the image of things inexorably moving forward.
Malick’s take on the events isn’t a simple matter of looking on the English as inherently evil, so much as invincibly ignorant. They aren’t an intentionally cruel people; they are simply stupidly superior. They’re near the truth when they call the Native Americans “the naturals,” but they don’t see what that makes them by inference. They prattle on about God and humanity while dragging the naturals around in chains and seem to see no contradiction.
In Malick’s approach, both the English and the natives are equally curious about each other. It will be the one who is the most “untamed” among the English, John Smith, who will have the most impact on the Indians when one of their number, the chief’s daughter — the never-named-in-the-film Pocahontas — throws herself upon him to keep her people from killing him, an act that seals everyone’s fates for good and ill.
The film follows the life of Pocahontas (it’s really more Kilcher’s film than Farrell’s), from her meeting with Smith through her banishment from the tribe to her marriage to another Englishman, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), to her trip to England and final meeting with Smith, and on through her death. The story itself isn’t terrifically complicated, but the characterizations are.
More, Malick’s pantheistic sensibility makes the film almost as much about the land — about the characters in their settings — as it is about the people themselves. This is part of what gives the film its textural richness. It is also what helps to make The New World slow moving. Malick’s obsession with nature frequently brings the film to a dead stop.
But what makes all of this worthwhile is the fact that one is always conscious of a very human presence. Unlike all too many films, there’s never even a whiff of corporate thought, demographics or the sense of a movie made by a committee — merely writer-director Malick’s personal vision. That’s hard to dismiss.
However, it’s equally hard to dismiss the fact that there’s a price to be paid for this vision. As noted, the action scenes are lame and the movie is slow. Similarly, the use of voice-overs to carry the story is sometimes on the purple side, and parts of the film verge on the risible — especially the-late-in-the-day reappearance of John Smith, who has not aged one iota and seems to still be wearing the same clothes (and is just as badly in need of a bath and a shampoo) as when last we saw him. Then as we’re about to burst out laughing at the ludicrousness of the image, Malick stages the film’s strongest emotional scene and the laugh dies before it’s even fully born.
All these things conspire against The New World — and they’re pretty weighty. The question is whether they actually sink the film. For me, the vision and the artistry overcame the movie’s considerable flaws, but I couldn’t fault anyone for finding it more of a bore than anything else, even though I’d say they missed the point. Rated PG-13 for some intense battle sequences.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke