New World, The (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When last we encountered Pocahontas in movie-land, she had been Disney-fied to allow children to experience a sanitized version of her adventures. While there's nothing wrong with Pocahontas (except the history, that is), Terrence Malick is going for something more poetic and visually plush, not to mention using a narrative that sticks closer to the established facts. The New World takes liberties with what really happened, but it's more adult and true in its account than the Disney version.

This film is beautiful to look at, but that should come as no surprise. Malick has always been known as a painter who uses celluloid as his canvas. His films breathe and move slowly. Patience is a mandatory trait for those desiring not to be bored. I have not always been a fan of the director's style. I liked The Thin Red Line, but parts bored me, and I was less than impressed by Days of Heaven. For the most part, I found The New World to be absorbing. There was not a lot of watch watching. Without compromising his style, Malick manages to develop an interesting account and provide insight into the emotions of the leads. If only he had eliminated the voiceovers…

The New World is a misnomer, since it leads one to believe that the film is going to be about the struggles of European colonists establishing settlements in the Americas during the 1600s. While that's admittedly part of the narrative, it's not the biggest part. This is really the story of Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher), the Native American princess who provided aid to the settlers of Virginia, fell in love with Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), was exiled by her father, and became the dutiful wife of tobacconist John Rolfe (Christian Bale). The New World tells two different kinds of love stories: the youthful passion of Pocahontas' coupling with the dashing-but-unreliable Smith, and her more mature relationship with the stable, loving Rolfe. All of this occurs against the backdrop of the uneasy relationship that exists between the tribes of "naturals" and the English interlopers.

Much of the film's first hour reminded me of Dances with Wolves. Smith, sent as an emissary to Powhatan (August Schellenberg), the chief of the Algonquian Indians, is seduced by the lifestyle and the chief's 12-year old daughter. (She seems older in the movie, probably to ward off pedophilia charges against Smith.) During these sequences, we see the gradual development of a romance (although the historical record indicates that their relationship, while close, was more that of a father and daughter). With Malick not rushing things, these two fall in love slowly and naturally. However, once Smith returns to Jamestown, the idyll is shattered. They meet numerous times after their summer together, but growing tensions between the Algonquin and the Englishmen limit their freedom to interact, and Smith's internal conflict about their relationship leads to him to accept a commission from the King to explore for a northern passage to the Indies.

After Smith is gone, John Rolfe enters the picture. He is devoted to Pocahontas, even though she still mourns Smith's departure and apparent death. In many ways, this romance, though less traditional, is more interesting. In order to be with Rolfe, Pocahontas must give up her dreams of the road not taken and accept the good things that life has placed in front of her. Like many of us, she learns that the first love, while often the most heated and intense, can burn out quickly and has no future. Malick brings this home.

There's no doubt that the cinematography is showy. It highlights the natural beauty of the scenery and often lingers on faces. (Everything except scenes requiring visual effects was shot in 65 mm, making this the first movie since Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet to employ the expensive stock.) The New World is an effective mix of visual poetry and prose. It has the power to captivate. The ambient soundtrack, featuring the noises of an unspoiled land, is also effective. Unfortunately, Malick chooses to add internal monologues from Smith, Pocahontas, and Rolfe. Not only are these florid voiceovers badly written, but they are intrusive and hurt the flow of the movie. In addition, they are redundant. Everything that's said in them is expressed by the actors through facial expressions, gestures, and actions. This isn't a minor flaw - it's a major impediment to enjoying the movie. In addition, there are times when James Horner's score comes across as too loud.

Colin Farrell is adequate, although the Irish brogue is distracting. His best work is in his last scene, which requires him to be introspective and regretful. Christian Bale gives his usual fine performance, but he only appears in the film's final 45 minutes. Newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher displays more maturity than her 14 years (the age at which she began filming) would suggest. She is consistently good, and has an expressive face. The supporting cast includes the always reliable Christopher Plummer as Captain Christopher Newport, veteran Native American actor Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves) as one of Powhatan's warriors, and Irene Bedard as Pocahontas' mother. Bedard's inclusion is interesting, since she supplied the speaking voice of the title character in Disney's Pocahontas. It's hard to say whether this is coincidence or an acknowledgment by Malick.

The New World is likely one of those films that viewers will either embrace or hold at arm's length. Malick often has that effect. If you're in the mood for something reflective and visually sumptuous, this movie will have you enraptured before the 30 minute mark. If you're less patient, you'll be squirming in your seat. The New World is beautiful and lyrical and, except for the ill-advised voiceovers, a treat for more than one of the senses. And it tells stories about characters in situations worth caring about. It's a worthy effort, and recommended viewing for those who have interest.

New World, The (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 2:25
U.S. Release Date: 2005-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1