Movie Review: The New World
Release Date: December 25, 2005
Distributor: New Line Cinema
· Terrence Malick
· Colin Farrell
· Q’Orianka Kilcher
· Christian Bale
· IMDb: The New World
· Cinema Spider: The New World
by Ted Porter
Published: January 26, 2006
With only his fourth feature film in more than thirty years, director Terrence Malick has created another lyrical, evocative world of stunning visual beauty, proving once again that it's not quantity but quality that matters. Malick is such a unique talent that he more than justifies the years it takes him to release a new film. I can honestly say that I haven't seen any movie quite like "The New World" since--well, since the last time I saw a Terrence Malick movie. The title is a sign of things to come, both for history and for the viewer: as the film tells the tale of a new world revealed to European consciousness, it also opens up a new consciousness for the viewer to discover, for as with all the best art, it provides a new way of looking at the world. If you've never seen one of Malick's films, be prepared to be enraptured, overwhelmed, and carried away on a wave of imagery and emotion. It's a massive achievement.
The story, of course, is the very beginning of the story of America as we know it. In 1607, English explorers arrive on the shores of what would become Virginia to establish a colony and, eventually, find a passage to "the other sea." They encounter a tribe of Native Americans and at first are greeted with curiosity and even a cautious friendliness. The first minutes of the film show the moments before this momentous meeting, as the English ships approach land and the natives watch from between the trees. Neither side knows what to expect, and Malick illustrates the significance of what's about to happen by contrasting the simple, joyous life of the natives at one with nature, a life they have probably led for centuries, with the weary but eager colonists eyeing the land before them with anticipation. It's difficult to describe the effect of these scenes because what the film is trying to get at is something that cannot, and perhaps should not, be explained. How do you explain such an event as this? It's almost inconceivable, and yet somehow you get the sense, watching, that this must be close to how these people felt at the time. There is no dialogue in these first minutes, only the majestic, building strains of Wagner and the silent wondering of these two vastly different peoples not quite aware that they are about to make history.
Among the explorers is Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), who when we first see him is in shackles in a ship's hold. He's about to be hanged for having made mutinous remarks, but is given a second chance once on land. His superior, Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer), gives him a stern warning but lets him investigate the new terrain as he likes. He trusts in Smith's abilities (Smith is the only real soldier among the men), and perhaps sees something in him that will make the most of this experience. Smith is already a bit of a loner, an outcast among his own people. He sees things differently from everyone else, and that's what makes him able to absorb the culture of the Native Americans, to see their way of life and enter into it as much as an outsider can.
At first, though, Smith is not accepted by the natives; he's taken captive and almost killed by them, as they debate what should be done about the colonists. It's only through the compassion of the young princess Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) that Smith's life is spared. Because of her curiosity about him, Smith is allowed to stay with her and her people. The two of them quickly become friends, exploring the natural world around them and engaging in an idyllic exchange of gestures, sensations, and ideas as they learn about each other. These mostly wordless scenes are a highlight of the film, and Malick takes his time with them, letting them play out simply and organically, so that you begin to feel the wonder and joy the characters are experiencing through each other. Seemingly meaningless, throwaway moments between them become filled with more and more weight and meaning as they accumulate.
Farrell and newcomer Kilcher are perfect in these scenes, conveying a spontaneity in their actions and reactions, never overplaying and always maintaining a sense of the dreamlike reality of what is happening to them. Kilcher, barely fifteen years old during shooting, is a real find: she gives a wise and sensitive performance, expressing volumes of feeling mostly through her eyes and body gestures. There is no overt sexual relationship between the characters, but their bond is as strong as one, if not more so; clearly in love, they understand each other because they are both outcasts from their own kind, eager to discover something beyond the constraints of what they already know. They are stand-ins for their respective cultures, and as such they represent the best qualities of each. It's a profound mingling of souls that takes on added significance in the context of the history they're living. Later in the film, after his stay with Pocahontas and the other natives, Smith more than once looks back and wonders if his time with her was only a dream; later still, he comes to the conclusion that it was the only truth. History is on the move, and America is on its way to becoming an inevitable reality, but it's not hard to believe that Smith was right.
After a while Smith returns to lead the settlement. The colonists struggle in the early days just to survive, and their fragile truce with the natives soon breaks down into violence. Pocahontas eventually marries the kind Englishman John Rolfe (Christian Bale), bears his child, and goes to live in England with him. It's a story any number of directors might have told, but the story Malick is concerned with is not the traditional one. Audiences expecting action and adventure as the English explore the new land and deal with the natives, or drama and romance as individuals from the two cultures interact, will certainly find some of those things here. But the main focus of the movie is on the private, fleeting moments of insight and discovery made by the main characters. Long sections of voice-over narration married to beautiful images of the natural world convey the deeper truths the characters are coming to understand. The film achieves much of its power this way, filtering a story of grand historical significance through the smaller, personal stories of its participants. The portrayal of what these historical figures may have thought and felt is what stays with one long after any larger spectacle has lost its novelty. Malick turns what could have been merely a cinematic history lesson into a compelling vision of what it means to be human, how we interpret the world around us, and how we see ourselves in relation to that world.
Still, there is always the sense behind these intimate scenes that the world the characters have known up until now will never be the same, for better or worse. History books have already provided us with the knowledge of what came next. Malick, realizing this, knows there's no need to state the obvious, and it gives him a certain amount of freedom from exposition. It also invests many lines of the film's dialogue with tragic irony. One of the natives sees no harm in letting the settlers stay when "all they want is a bit of swampland," but another is not so sure, wondering what more they will want later. A scene especially heartbreaking in its implications occurs as Pocahontas and her people come to the rescue of the starving colonists during the harsh winter. Smith takes her aside and tells her, "Don't trust me. You don't know who I am." Despite their deep bond he's right to warn her, but of course it's already too late; she can't know yet that the tide of history is against her and her people. The America Pocahontas has known is gone, and it's never coming back. The New World is here to stay.
Admittedly, this movie will not be to everyone's taste. As always, Malick favors meditative moments over direct action, internal monologue over dialogue, imagery over plot. It's been said by some already that the movie is dull in parts, and while it's possible to see how some viewers might agree, I for one can't recall a single boring moment during its two and a half hours. It may be that a certain frame of mind is required to appreciate everything the film has to offer; but if you can let yourself be both an empty receptacle for its transcendent beauty and an attentive watcher of its subtle, poetic moments, you'll be amply rewarded.